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Business

Global halal market a sweet opportunity for Japan's Mitsui Sugar

Demand for Muslim-friendly products grows from tourists, seasoning makers

Sugarcane is seen after being harvested in a field at Pakchong district in Ratchaburi province,Thailand. Mitsui Sugar is removing animal products from its refining process at a plant in Kyushu, southwestern Japan, hoping to gain halal certification.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Mitsui Sugar, Japan's largest sugar producer, will soon start making products that comply with Islamic dietary law, responding to the growing global demand from restaurants and seasoning makers interested in selling to Muslim customers.

Facing shrinking demand at home, Japan's sugar makers are looking for new markets abroad. Mitsui's move could spur others to do the same.

Sugar refining involves removing pigments and other impurities from raw sugar. Some producers use bone char derived from cattle. Although this animal product can simultaneously filter both pigments and ash, sugar produced in this way is not halal, or compliant with Islamic dietary rules. 

Mitsui Sugar has decided to change its production method to eliminate the use of bone char. It will use charcoal filtration instead.

The company will spend about 850 million yen ($7.49 million) to replace 10 refining units operating at its Fukuoka plant in southwestern Japan with two new units that use charcoal filtration. The new equipment will come online next July.  

Cost cutter

Activated charcoal has a much higher adsorption efficiency than bone char, meaning it requires less water and electricity. Switching to charcoal filtration will cut costs by 100 million yen or so annually, Mitsui said. Depending on how the production shift goes at the Fukuoka plant, the company will consider installing charcoal-filter refining equipment at other plants in Chiba Prefecture, near Tokyo; in Kobe, western Japan; and elsewhere. 

Sugar consumption is falling in Japan. According to the agriculture ministry, for the year ended September, demand was roughly 75% of what it was in 1985. The decline is largely due to health-conscious consumers, who increasingly avoid sugar in their diets. 

At the same time, the rising number tourists to Japan from Muslim countries gives Japanese food processors and restaurants more reason to offer halal products. "We are receiving a growing number of inquiries, mainly from seasoning product makers, about whether we sell halal-compliant sugar," said one employee of Mitsui Sugar.

The company hopes to sell halal sugar to food processors and eventually obtain halal certification for its own product.

Several other producers in Japan have also begun refining sugar using charcoal filtration.

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