The bill on halal product assurance, being drawn up by the government, is expected to become the center of controversy in the country when deliberated in the House of Representatives.
The most contentious issue in the debate is the Indonesian Ulema Council's (MUI) demand for halal certification to be made obligatory in the draft law.
The council is also seeking to retain its authority in administrating and issuing halal certificates for food, drugs and cosmetic products.
The House's religious affairs commission chairman, Hazrul Azwar, said Saturday he and other legislators had endorsed the council's request at a hearing on this issue earlier this month.
Currently, the labeling of halal is voluntarily under the law.
For many reasons such certification -- be it voluntary or mandatory -- is not what we need in food consumption. Healthy or hygienic food assurances from the state are considerably more important for all social groups in this pluralist and democratic nation.
"Halal", the term used to highlight the new bill, is exclusive to the Muslim community, even though most, if not all, Indonesians understand its meaning.
The term "healthy", however, is in fact relevant to all Indonesians -- Muslims and non-Muslims -- for its inclusive value.
So what the government must do for the public at large is ensure that food and other products circulated widely are healthy and hygienic.
The issue of whether products available for the public are halal or haram is a private matter and thus should be left to individuals to choose.
The government should not intervene in such a personal issue.
Since the issue of halal is also a religious matter, the state must stay away from meddling with it and must let it be a personal affair between consumers and God.
But the government's obligation is to make sure that producers do inform consumers of their products' ingredients in a more transparent manner, including their possible contents of pork, alcohol or other items considered to be "haram" under Islamic law.
Ingredients which are medically deemed to pose health risks must also be made transparent by producers.
If producers fail to do so, they should be subject to serious law enforcement.
This way, consumers -- Muslims in particular -- would easily be able to distinguish between halal and haram food and know which products are healthy for consumption.
As a result, it is not necessary to maintain halal labeling or even make it mandatory because the government must protect all social groups, not only Muslims, in the issue of food consumption.
Halal labeling could mislead Muslims since Islamic laws defining halal and haram food are outdated. They are no longer relevant to Muslims in the current globalized era.
Chicken, tofu and tempeh bought from traditional markets would remain halal despite the fact they may be contaminated with formaldehyde, borax and other dangerous chemicals.
The obligatory halal labeling would also prompt the MUI to issue a fatwa ruling certifying products as haram or not halal.
This will be a problematic option in terms of religious and economic principles.
Mandatory halal labeling is basically against fundamental Islamic belief because everything on earth is from God and is halal, except for what the Koran states clearly as haram.
The MUI has no authority to deem a product as haram simply because it has no halal label attached.
It will also further create a high cost economy as it increases production costs, putting an extra financial burden on producers.
This will in turn worsen Indonesia's competitive edge in exporting products.
Small businesses will be hit hardest by the halal certification as opposed to big producers.
Ironically, an attempt to help consumers, the halal labeling will cause them to suffer. They will have to pay more for their food if it is processed under certain costly Islamic procedures.
According to Islamic law, producers are required, for example, to manually slaughter an animal and fully remove the blood from the meat. They must also allow Islamic auditors to examine the food in order to obtain halal certificates.
These religious procedures mean additional costs for producers leading to higher prices for consumers.
For non-Muslim producers, it is unfair and unwise to make halal certification mandatory because it is not part of their belief.
If they want to voluntarily have their products certified to cater to Muslim consumers, they can decide to do so.
The government can't force producers only to sell halal products, even though they operate in this predominantly Muslim country.
This odd regulation is not recognized in Islam.
According to Islamic law, a Muslim cannot be punished simply for buying haram food. Public law can not be enforced against a person buying or selling religiously forbidden items either.
For Muslim consumers, there is no guarantee that companies will not change their materials, even if they have been granted halal certificates.
Another reason to scrap the halal labeling policy is that the certification process is widely prone to corruption.
Don't forget the major graft case about the misuse of funds collected from haj pilgrims by the Religious Affairs Ministry.
The scandal ended with the jailing of former religious affairs minister Said Aqil Hussein Al-Munawwar. The possibility of such practices recurring in the halal certification issue is undeniable.The author is a staff writer at
The Jakarta Post.