Aqlifoods slow to alert consumers

JIJI, Kyodo

The Gunma Prefectural Police on Saturday examined a plant run by a subsidiary of Maruha Nichiro Holdings Inc. after pesticide was found in its frozen food products.

The police are investigating the possibility that the contamination was intentional and plan to inspect the manufacturing process and storage conditions by holding hearings with workers at the plant, which is run by Aqlifoods Co. in the town of Oizumi.

The widely used pesticide malathion was found in nine packages of seven products made at the plant between Oct. 4 and Nov. 5, according to the parent and the prefectural government.

The highest concentration, 15,000 parts per million, was found in a frozen corn cream croquette. Eating more than one-eighth of such a croquette would be enough to cause signs of acute poisoning, including vomiting, in a 20-kg child.

At least one child and a man in his 40s reportedly vomited after eating allegedly tainted products, but no other health problems have been reported.

Aqlifoods regrets taking hours to publicly announce Dec. 29 that some of its products had been tainted with pesticide when it had already asked retailers to pull the items from their shelves, company officials said Thursday.

While police are investigating how the products were tainted, an Aqlifoods source said the products found laced with the organic phosphate were packaged in the same section of the company’s Gunma factory after they were processed through different product lines.

Aqlifoods, a subsidiary of the Maruha Nichiro group, had recalled 6.3 million packages of frozen food as of 5 p.m. Dec. 29, after supermarkets and other retailers nationwide were told that morning to remove the products, the officials said. This was after initial reports about the unusual odor of some products that came from consumers from 13 prefectures in November, according to the company.

It published a notice in Monday newspapers about detecting malathion and the recall, which later encompassed around 6.4 million products.

“We regret taking time to prepare for a news conference while withdrawing the products,” a company official said.

On Tuesday, Aqlifoods changed its previous estimate of 60 croquettes comprising a toxic dose, five hours after an advisory by the health ministry alerted the company.

At the Gunma factory, the products were moved from the manufacturing lines to the same packaging room, with eight of them delivered to three warehouses in Kanagawa and Saitama prefectures, according to the company source. The remaining one has not been traced yet.

In the city of Tottori, a man in his 40s ate an Aqlifoods croquette Dec. 24 at his home, threw up the following morning, and recovered later in the day, the prefectural government said, noting the man has since reported no symptoms.

Since there was no leftovers from the consumed product, it remains unknown whether it contained the agrichemical. The product package, however, indicated it was subject to the recall that covers potentially harmful products made at the Gunma factory.

Gunma police suspect someone deliberately laced the products since the detected level of pesticide was too high to be normal residue from the ingredients. A prefectural official also said it is unlikely the chemical found its way into the products in the regular manufacturing process.