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Tight budgets, food safety and eel inflation

by Mark Schreiber

The future promise of Abenomics notwithstanding, Japan’s white-collar office workers are still being squeezed in terms of their discretionary spending. Results of the annual survey of salaryman kozukai (allowance), released June 28 by Shinsei Bank, noted that this year the average monthly spending money fell from 2012 by ¥1,299 to ¥38,457, making it the second lowest since the bank began its survey in 1979. (The all-time highest monthly allowance, in 1990, was ¥77,725.)

The survey found their average lunchtime outlay was ¥518, broken down by 30.7 percent who bring meals from home; 24.9 percent who purchase boxed meals; and 19.2 percent who eat in restaurants. While the respondents said they paid out an average of ¥614 more than the previous year each time they went out for drinks — making the average tab ¥3,474 — the overall frequency declined.

The budgetary squeeze raises the question: Do chains of low-cost eateries, family restaurants, izakaya (Japanese-style pubs) and so on cut corners on food safety to provide these increasingly impecunious salarymen with ever-cheaper lunches and after-five snacks?

Accusations have been leveled that many ingredients of dubious safety — while not necessarily labeled as such — are imported from China. Indeed, coverage of this topic in the tabloids from earlier this year was as ubiquitous as any scandal within recent memory, and the media are still on the prowl for evidence that imported food items contain residual pesticides or are substandard and otherwise unfit for human consumption.

Back in June, Nikkan Gendai went so far as to draw up a list of “dangerous” food items on izakaya menus, to which it assigned three “skulls” signifying the riskiest in terms of safety. These were: small clams steamed in wine; green soybeans; meatballs; gyōza (pot-stickers); pickled vegetable assortments; and onion salads. (The safest items were cold tofu, fried rice and fried noodles.)

This near-hysterical chorus of warnings to the unwary public about the perils of consuming imported foods aside, with one notable exception involving 10 Japanese sickened by intentionally poisoned gyōza back in December 2007, I have yet to see a single news report of anyone seriously stricken by the ingestion thereof. (Of course it’s possible long-term consumption may entail greater risks.)

Yet the flood of articles continue. The August issue of Takarajima focuses on the safety of food imports from China, which is Japan’s second-largest food supplier after the United States.

“Foods are exported and imported with the belief in intrinsic goodness, according to gentlemen’s agreements,” a foodstuffs importer identified only as Hayashi tells the magazine. “While China has been tagged as the bad guy here, the U.S. is pretty awful. I’ve seen shipments of moldy corn, sometimes with the occasional used condom mixed in. Since Italy doesn’t supply enough olives for its own market, ‘Italian’ olive oil is processed with olives imported from somewhere else, which makes it false labeling.

“The decline of morals due to the pursuit of profits is occurring on a worldwide scale, and has become a major issue in need of review,” Hayashi added.

Meanwhile, Shukan Bunshun has been running an exposé series by Rei Shiina titled ” ‘Gekiyasu nisemono shokuhin’ ga abunai” (“Extra-cheap imitation foods are dangerous”). Last week (July 25) the magazine looked into the sleazy practices of major kaiten-zushi (conveyor-belt sushi) restaurant chains, which she accuses of cutting corners in a variety of ways, including adding oil to raw tuna to make it appear as toro, a more expensive cut; applying food coloring to give salmon a brighter orange appearance; and rampant substitutions of cheaper varieties of fish.

In this week’s installment (Aug. 1), Shiina turns her scrutiny to the menu items at budget izakaya chains and franchise shops that dispense ready-made bentō (boxed meals).

Other publications have been reporting on the gradual disappearance of a popular summer food item. The Sankei Shimbun (July 21), noting that the next day was to be “Ushi-no-Hi,” supposedly the hottest day of summer and one on which Japanese traditionally consume unagi kabayaki (grilled eels on skewers) for extra protein, reported that prices for the dish are going through the roof.

“The year before last, the price of una-jū (grilled eel over rice in a lacquered box) went up between ¥300 and ¥500, with menu items ranging from ¥2,200 to ¥4,800,” Shunsuke Mita, director of Tokyo’s association of eel merchants, tells the Sankei. “This year specialty restaurants are saying even at that rate they lose money. But if they raise prices any higher they won’t have any customers.”

Over the past two decades, membership in Mita’s association declined from 160 restaurants to 95.

When cable TV provider J:COM surveyed 1,509 people on whether or not they would be consuming eel on July 22, the nays outweighed the yeas by 65 to 35 percent. The reasons (as appearing in the July 25 Nikkan Gendai) for not eating eel that day (all figures are percentages), were: price excessive (45); don’t particularly like eel (24); and prefer to avoid herd mentality (19). Only 4 percent of respondents said they’d refrain to help conserve the species.