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Fast-food follies have media in a frenzy

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

Almost exactly a year ago (on July 27, 2013), this column reported on how the print media was inundated with concerns over the safety of foods from abroad. Among the sources cited was Takarajima magazine, which quoted a foodstuffs importer as saying, “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.”

Those remarks proved prophetic. Husi Food Co., Ltd. of Shanghai, owned by the OSI Group of Aurora, Illinois, found itself in trouble last month after a reporter from Shanghai’s Dragon TV infiltrated its processing plant and shot video footage that left little doubt its workers were repackaging expired beef and chicken products, which were shipped to McDonald’s and other customers in China, Hong Kong and Japan. China reportedly accounted for 38 percent of the chicken products procured by McDonald’s Japan last year (as opposed to 62 percent from Thailand).

McDonald’s Japan immediately shifted to damage-control mode. Announcements promptly went up at the entrances of outlets that sales of the items in question would be suspended pending further notice. On July 29, company CEO Sarah Casanova appeared on TV to state, “The news … was incredibly disturbing to us, appalling, … completely unacceptable.” “What happened … was a willful deception of a few employees,” she added, and proceeded to reassure consumers that her company — whose sales were already slumping months before the present scandal — would cease to source ingredients from China.

Revelations on the expired meat (some articles have used the term “stale”; others, “rotten”) rekindled Japanese consumers’ long-standing suspicions toward the safety of imported foods.

Japan’s tabloids are wont to react viscerally to news of criminally lax sanitation and indifference to residual additives and pesticides in food imports, even more so than do articles exposing the occasional lapses by Japan’s own food producers. It’s almost as if each time Japan’s food self-sufficiency drops another percentage point — it’s below 40 now — the public’s paranoia toward imported foodstuffs undergoes a commensurate rise.

Some representative headlines:

Spa! (Aug. 5): “After this, will companies dealing in food products still put Chinese foodstuffs into the mouths of Japanese?”

Asahi Geino (Aug. 11): “On the nauseating production floor of a hopeless factory; Japan-bound food products.”

Flash (Aug. 12): “China’s highly toxic foods; will you eat them after this?”

Shukan Josei (Aug. 12): “Decent Chinese say, ‘I absolutely won’t eat that stuff.’”

Shukan Bunshun (Aug. 7): “The terror of Chinese chicken.”

Shukan Shincho (Aug. 7): “Safeguard yourself from polluted and rotten foods from China!”

Aera (Aug. 4): “If the meat can be sold, then it must be good meat.”

“It’s common knowledge that China’s food products aren’t safe. Stories like this have no news value,” a reporter for a Beijing evening newspaper tells Aera.

At the root of the present crisis, Aera’s writer concludes, is moral turpitude that permeates Chinese society.

“Documentation was forged and ‘evidence’ concealed from customer inquiries. The workers rationalized it by saying, ‘Nobody will die (even from eating products) past the expiration date.’ All I can think of is how morals have collapsed.”

The workers at Husi, most of whom migrated from farm villages, had a strong sense that what their city cousins ate was “somebody else’s concern.” The cause of their indifference, the writer opines, could be attributed to the schism between China’s haves and have-nots, a byproduct of an unequal society stemming from the country’s uneven economic growth.

In perhaps the most extreme example of the media’s Sinophobia, Shukan Taishu (Aug. 11) went so far as to suggest that Japanese are literally playing Russian roulette with their chopsticks.

“When placed in a tank full of water the goldfish died!” it screams. “It’s not about a food, but waribashi (disposable chopsticks), some 80 billion sets a year of which are exported from China.”

An unnamed news correspondent relates, “While in Shanghai I noticed that when the chopsticks supplied to ordinary restaurant diners were thrust into soup, the broth turned cloudy.”

Another reporter tells the magazine that the wood in disposable chopsticks is treated with a fungal retardant and bleach to make them appear more attractive. “But hardly any of them are washed before shipment, so they still contain potentially harmful chemicals,” he adds.

According to the magazine, some 97 percent of the 25 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks used each year in Japan are sourced from China. The article describes China’s exports of chemical-laced chopsticks as “acts of terror on a global scale.”

While food sanitation is indeed a serious concern, no evidence has surfaced to date that people who consumed the tainted chicken (or other imports from China) suffered any short-term ill effects: no mass outbreaks of dysentery; no hair falling out in clumps; no grotesque malignancies.

Disparaging imported foods as a health menace might also seem paradoxical in view of Japan’s improving longevity statistics. On July 31, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare announced that in 2013, both males and females in Japan extended their life expectancy, with females now ranked in first place worldwide at 86.61 years, while males ranked fourth behind Hong Kong, Iceland and Switzerland at 80.21 years.