Firm admits toxin far more harmful than thought

Foul play probed in tainted food

Kyodo, JIJI

Police are investigating whether someone intentionally laced high levels of pesticide in frozen food products made at a Gunma Prefecture-based subsidiary of Maruha Nichiro Holdings Inc.

The subsidiary, Aqlifoods Co., announced Tuesday that malathion, the pesticide found in some of its frozen food, could sicken a child who consumed just one-eighth of a croquette, dramatically revising its previous estimate of 60 croquettes comprising a toxic dose.

An official at the firm told reporters early Tuesday that the company didn’t have sufficient knowledge about the toxicity when it released its initial estimate.

The police are investigating the incident because pesticide was not used at the food factory and its concentration levels were too high to be residue from the farms where the vegetables in the products were grown.

Aqlifoods detected the malathion — an organic phosphate typically used as a pesticide — in nine samples from seven different product lines after examining 20 items from 10 product lines that since November have drawn complaints from consumers about odors.

There have been no reports of anyone falling ill, according to the company.

Consumers in Tokyo and Fukuoka, Osaka, Aichi, Kanagawa and Shizuoka prefectures have purchased the nine products. Those include frozen pizza, chicken grilled with teriyaki sauce and fried sweet corn.

The highest concentration was detected in a pack of croquettes bought by a consumer in Tokyo. It registered 15,000 parts per million, 1.5 million times higher than the acceptable level of residue. The name of the product was Toro-ri Kurimu Korokke (Soft Cream Croquette).

At this concentration, Aqlifoods earlier explained the amount would become harmful “only if a child weighing 20 kg were to eat 60 croquettes at one time.”

But the company was forced to issue a correction, stating that even someone weighing 60 kg could get sick after eating just one-third of a tainted croquette.

The Maruha Nichiro group has suspended operations at the Gunma plant and started recalling all products shipped from it, officials of the group said.

As of Tuesday, Aqlifoods has recalled or stopped shipments of 49 kinds of frozen products, including pizza, gratin, lasagna, hot cakes and chicken nuggets, according to the officials.

The Gunma Prefectural Government said the food products of those kinds in question were stored at warehouses in Kawasaki.

At the news conference, Maruha Nichiro President Toshio Kushiro said, “We offer sincere apologies for causing misunderstanding among consumers in explaining potentially sickening cases.”

The Consumer Affairs Agency on its website has posted a list of Aqlifoods products the company has been pulling from the market to alert consumers who may have purchased them.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry said it is calling on regional governments to ensure that consumers are informed about the pesticide-laced frozen foods, warning they could cause vomiting and stomachaches.

Aqlifoods received a complaint from a consumer Nov. 13 that a frozen pizza made at the Gunma plant smelled like petroleum or machine oil.

Since then, the company has received a spate of similar complaints from people who bought its frozen pizzas and fried foods.

As of Saturday, the pesticide had been detected in such frozen products as pizzas and fried foods by an outside inspection institute that Aqlifoods asked to check the plant’s products.