You pay extra to eat precious seasonal delicacies or coveted regional brand foodstuff at hotels and restaurants — perhaps because you see extra value in the special dishes. But what if the “special” menus you open in front of you do not represent the food actually served?
The impressive list of major hotels and established department stores that followed Hankyu Hanshin Hotels in quick succession in admitting that they misrepresented food items on their restaurant menus makes it look as if it is a common practice in the nation’s food-service industry. The operators of such establishments have denied trying to defraud customers for profit and blamed the problem on mistakes, miscommunication or lack of knowledge on the part of restaurant staff. But this explanation sounds hollow given that the replacement of expensive ingredients with cheaper items has been going on sometimes for years.
The president of Hankyu Hanshin Hotels, in announcing his resignation to take the blame for the fiasco, admitted that restaurant staff were aware that they were using ingredients different from the ones presented in the menus. Reported cases include Vannamei shrimp passed off as more expensive Shiba shrimp, “shark fin” soup using fins made of artificial ingredients, tiger shrimp served in dishes purported to include prawns and frozen fish used in a dish of “fresh” seafood.
In other cases, places of origin of ingredients were wrongly represented, imported foodstuffs were identified as “domestic” and products supplied by third-party makers were presented as the restaurants’ “homemade” specials. A plate of “organically grown vegetables” was mixed with produce from ordinary farms. And, in a practice admitted to by several establishments, processed beef with added fat injected into it was passed off as genuine steak.
Unfortunately, scandals are not new to Japan’s food industry. In the past food makers were found to have falsified the place of origin of food or to have used expired ingredients, and as a result they suffered falling sales and a loss of consumer trust.
Currently there are no clear legal guidelines for menu descriptions of food served at restaurants. They are not covered by the Japan Agricultural Standards, under which makers of fresh or processed foods sold at retail stores must follow strict guidelines on the labeling of ingredients and production methods.
In response to the widening scandal, the government said it plans to work out menu guidelines under the law against charging unjustified premiums and misrepresentation of ingredients. But it would be impractical to establish a system of third-party surveillance to verify whether the food being served matches menu descriptions.
Since it is often difficult for people to determine whether the food they receive is actually what they ordered, it will ultimately be up to restaurants operators to regain the trust of customers by maintaining high ethical standards.
What is at stake is not food safety — except in cases where substitute allergenic ingredients are used without customers’ knowledge. Rather it’s customers’ trust in hotels, department stores and restaurant operators to serve the premium products that they are advertising. For these establishments to willfully do otherwise constitutes fraud — a practice that has no place in business.