'Jihad' declared against Cadbury: What should the brand do?

MALAYSIA - In a move surreal in its extremity, more than 20 Malay-Muslim groups in Malaysia have declared a "Jihad" against Cadbury following the discovery of porcine DNA in two varieties of its chocolate bars.

Cadbury Malaysia issued a recall of the affected chocolate bars immediately
Cadbury Malaysia issued a recall of the affected chocolate bars immediately

Update, 3 June: Cadbury Malaysia’s chocolate has been cleared of all traces of pig DNA by JAKIM, representatives of which are prepared to eat the chocolate to prove that it’s safe for Muslim consumption.

The ongoing controversy is so sensitive that numerous agencies that have Islamic specialisations or handle accounts in Muslim nations have either dodged queries or turned down requests for comment and advice. Some have said they were "considering" participating while the more direct have admitted that the topic was too sensitive. As a result this article’s publication was delayed, for once not because the brand declined to comment, but because the agencies have proven reluctant to speak on the issue.

What’s the situation?

The entire incident stems from a photo of a lab report circulating on social media. The report claimed that the lab had tested a sample of hazelnut chocolate by ‘Cabbury’ and found the presence of DNA from pigs.

A spokesperson for Cadbury Malaysia explained that the company was contacted about the issue by Malaysia’s Ministry of Health late Friday evening (23 May) and learnt that the MOH had tested three samples of chocolate and found porcine DNA in two of the three: Cadbury Dairy Milk Hazelnut with batch number 200813M01H I2 and Cadbury Dairy Milk Roast Almond with batch number 221013N01R I1. The third sample, of Cadbury Dairy Milk (plain), was found to be free of pork DNA.

The brand initiated a voluntary recall of the two specific batches on Saturday (24 May) and informed all relevant stakeholders through social media, press releases and trade communications.

It is understood that Cadbury’s chocolate factories in Malaysia are being retested by JAKIM (Department of Islamic Development Malaysia)—the department responsible for ‘halal’ certifications—and the Ministry of Health.

When asked if neighbouring Muslim nation Indonesia was affected, Cadbury Malaysia responded that the country did not import the two types of chocolate bars from Malaysia.

At present, it remains unclear where the contaminated samples in the original lab report and the Ministry of Health’s report were sourced.

Furthermore, until Jakim releases its formal conclusions, any attempt to declare Cadbury Malaysia ‘haram’ is premature and not valid. According to a statement by the organisation, samples of the chocolate bars in question and from Cadbury’s factory have been sent to the National Chemical Lab for testing.

Cadbury Malaysia also added the following statement:

We would like to reassure our consumers that all Cadbury chocolates manufactured in Malaysia and currently on shelves, are halal-certified by JAKIM, which includes the locations and raw materials used in the production of these products. We employ stringent quality procedures to ensure that our products are of the highest standard of safety and quality. As a responsible brand, we take this matter seriously as we are committed to adhere to international standards and serving the highest quality products to all our customers across our portfolio.

How bad is the situation?

Things were already pretty bad for the brand when it was fielding negative comments on social media, where Malaysian Muslim consumers vented their feelings of betrayal and disgust. Even some non-Muslim consumers weighed in to question Cadbury’s manufacturing practices. The more extereme have even threatened to burn down Cadbury's factory in Malaysia. 

However the issue escalated Tuesday when more than 20 Malay-Muslim groups called for a nationwide boycott of Cadbury products and said that a "holy war" needed to be called against the chocolate manufacturer for "weakening" Muslims in Malaysia.

The president of one of those groups, Perkid, Ustaz Masridzi Sat, was quoted in the Malay Mail as asserting that the consumption of the tainted products had caused social ills and apostasy in the country. "Because the person eats pork it is difficult to guide him to the right path. When the day of judgment comes, that person will be wearing a pig-face because of what he has eaten," he said before declaring the need for ‘jihad’.

The groups also claimed that no amount of monetary compensation would suffice to "wash away the tainted blood" of those who had consumed chocolates. 

Has Cadbury done irreparable damage to its Muslim consumers?

Fortunately for Cadbury, the majority of Muslims in Malaysia are moderate and less extreme in their views. According to professor of Islamic studies, Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, who lectures at the Universiti Sains Malaysia, the views expressed by these groups are extreme and do not represent Islam.

"First things first, as a consumer, of course you have a right to protest when you feel you have been misled," said Mohd Asri. "However, there is no need to call a jihad, [Cadbury] never forced anyone to buy their products."

"The initial reaction from special interest groups has been, in my view, somewhat extreme (and I speak as a Muslim consumer)," agreed Zayn Khan, Southeast Asia CEO of design and innovation consultancy Dragon Rouge. "To declare a jihad against Cadbury and demand things like blood transfusions for affected consumers is bordering on fanatical. I would call for consumers to take a balanced and reasonable view and give Cadbury the opportunity to investigate, respond and address the manufacturing irregularities that have occurred."

In fact, the entire incident shouldn't even be termed a 'jihad', said Nandini Das Ghoshal, co-founder of consumer insight firm, Insights & More. "Declarations like this by one or few Muslim groups should not be extrapolated to the entire country." 

While the consumption of pork is forbidden in Islam, if it is consumed in innocence, without fore-knowledge, then the person has not sinned. "God will forgive you," said Mohd Asri.  

The truth is, added Mohd Asri, that the extreme reaction may be more the result of Malay culture than the teachings of Islam. Gambling and bribery are both likewise forbidden by Islam, yet Malaysians have a far more relaxed attitude towards those particular sins, which he feels are far more insidious and serious spiritual problems than trace amounts of pork in chocolate. 

The conspiracy theory that Cadbury was out to undermine Malaysia’s Muslim population is also silly. "Cadbury was unaware, don’t make it out to be a plot to cheat people," he said.

What can be done?

While many parties are urging Cadbury to apologise profusely, the hard truth is that until Jakim delivers its final report and the brand is sure of its innocence or guilt, legal reasons forbid the company from delivering a formal apology.

"The best that Cadbury can do in this situation is to be as open and transparent as possible," advised Khan. In a prior role, Khan was head of Ogilvy Malaysia when the network launched its Islamic practice, Ogilvy Noor. Speaking from this experience, he added, "From research I have been involved with, I know that Muslim consumers look for transparency, ethical behaviour and good corporate citizenship in corporate brands, no matter what the category."

When Cadbury has got to the bottom of its investigation, and assuming the contamination turns out to be real, the brand must first apologise to all consumers, not just Muslim consumers, continued Khan. "They must acknowledge what has happened and explain in reasonable detail how and why it happened. Then, of course, they must assure the public that concrete steps are being put in place to address the issues, against a specific timeline."

Ghoshal and co-founder Trisha Varma agree with Khan's assesment, "Cadbury Malaysia will have to step out of their offices and appear before the public. We all know that if someone betrays our trust, putting up statements on social media does not impress us and neither makes us forgive them."

It would also serve Cadbury’s interests to go beyond the call of duty and proactively re-check all of its manufacturing lines and products, workplace environments, distribution channels and retail environments to provide compliance assurance to consumers and business partners, said Khan. "They should invite the media and special interest groups into their offices and factories to see first-hand."

Lastly, when all the dust has settled, Cadbury should consider taking a lead role in raising the bar in terms of halal compliance, suggested Khan. "Cadbury is a strong brand in Malaysia and will weather this storm."

One country that has incurred a declaration of jihad and a resulting boycott if all its products in Muslim nations is Denmark. The Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoon controversy in 2005 led to the boycott of Danish products. However, one company, Arla Foods, successfully reached out to the Muslim community via full-page ads condemning the cartoons. This led to prominent Muslim leaders urging that Arla Foods be withdrawn from the list of boycotted products.

While not exactly surviving a jihad, some brands in Malaysia have weathered similar situations in the past. Both burger manufacturer Ramly Burger and coffee shop Kluang Coffee faced accusations of selling food that was found to be non-halal. 


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