Food safety measures fall short

The case of intentional food contamination at a subsidiary of Maruha Nichiro Holdings Inc. has exposed shortcomings in the product safety measures taken by Japanese food makers. While a criminal investigation is expected to shed more light on how and why the suspect — a contract employee of the group’s frozen food plant in Oizumi, Gunma Prefecture — laced products with pesticide, the system at the plant designed to prevent such an act was insufficient. The company’s slow response to the initial reports of health complaints from consumers may also have expanded the scope of poisoning.

The suspect has reportedly confessed to investigators that he injected the pesticide malathion into frozen foods such as pizza and croquettes during the manufacturing process in October. More than 2,800 people across the country complained of illness after eating products shipped from the plant.

Top executives of Maruha Nichiro and the subsidiary Aqlifoods Co. have apologized and offered to step down to take responsibility. But what is needed is an examination of how the suspect was able to circumvent the system supposedly in place at the plant to ensure product safety and what measures should be introduced to plug security loopholes. The 49-year-old worker, who reportedly had a grudge against the plant’s management over working conditions, has been quoted as telling his colleagues that anybody at the plant would have been able to do what he did.

The danger of intentional contamination of food products was highlighted in Japan when consumers were sickened by imported frozen gyoza dumplings that had been laced with insecticide by a worker at a plant in China’s Hebei province in 2008. At that time, the incident triggered concerns over the safety of food products made in China, but the Aqlifoods case shares many similarities with what reportedly happened at the Chinese plant six years ago.

Japanese food makers did step up product safety measures at their plants in the wake of the frozen gyoza case. Some companies have authentication systems for people allowed access to plant premises and buildings, and installed security videos to monitor people’s activities in and around plants. At some firms, employee uniforms are laundered by the company and employees are not allowed to take them outside plants.

Safety standards at the Aqlifoods plant had reportedly been accredited to fit certain international norms. The plant kept records of people’s entry and the manufacturing processes, and workers were told to change into uniforms that have no pockets so that they could not bring in irregular substances.

Still, security checks appear to have been lax once people got inside, with surveillance video cameras mostly used to monitor people’s entry into the plant. Employees were said to have been able to freely enter sections of the plant with product lines other than the ones to which they have been assigned.

The response of the company after the initial reports of the poisoning was also slow. Aqlifoods received the first report from a consumer who complained of a foul odor emanating from a frozen pizza in mid-November. But it wasn’t until Dec. 29 that the company announced that traces of pesticide had been found in some of its products and started recalling them. Thus it is likely that the company’s failure to promptly disclose information about the first contamination case significantly increased the scope of damage. As a food company, Aqlifoods cannot escape the charge that it failed to take prompt action to ensure consumer safety.