Food safety without borders

The recent revelation that a food maker in Shanghai that supplies fast-food and retail chains, including ones in Japan, was using expired and moldy meat in its products came as yet another reminder that the issue of food safety does not stop at national borders but increasingly requires international responses.

McDonald’s Japan has halted sales of all chicken products composed of meat from China, but Japan’s heavy reliance on food imports from China is likely to continue. Governments and businesses need to enhance international cooperation to ensure the safety of foodstuffs supplied across borders.

The news of the scandal at Shanghai Husi Food Co., a local unit of U.S.-based OSI Group LLC, had companies using products from the Chinese company scrambling to allay consumer concerns. Over the last 12 months to July, roughly 6,000 tons of processed meat products from Shanghai Husi were imported to Japan and supplied to McDonald’s Japan and convenience store chain FamilyMart Co.

Chinese authorities later said their probe so far shows that expired meat had not been used in products shipped to Japan.

Shipments from Shanghai Husi had accounted for roughly 20 percent of the Chicken McNuggets sold at McDonald’s outlets across the country. McDonald’s Japan, which relied on imports from China for about 40 percent of its chicken products, said it was halting the use of chicken meat from China altogether and switching to more costly supplies from Thailand in response to consumer worries over the safety of made-in-China food products.

Still, the revelation is not likely to stop many other Japanese fast-food and restaurant chains, retailers and food makers from continued reliance on foodstuffs processed in China — which are procured in large volumes at lower cost.

In 2013, agricultural and fisheries imports from China rose 12 percent from the previous year to ¥1.21 trillion, making it the second-largest source of such imports after the United States. China accounts for nearly half of Japan’s imports of processed chicken products and frozen vegetables.

Officials of these companies have been quoted as saying they try to ensure safety and quality control of the products made at contracted plants in China through regular visits to the factories to check on ingredients and the production process. It might still be difficult to prevent organized action to circumvent such checkups.

In the scandal at Shanghai Husi, exposed in late July by a local TV report, operators at the plant have reportedly told Chinese authorities that they had been ordered by plant management for years to use expired meat in its products. McDonald’s Japan and FamilyMart say such practices went undetected as they examined the quality of supplies from the company or through on-site checks on the Shanghai plant.

While no complaints have surfaced of health problems caused by the products from Shanghai Husi, the companies are sensitive to consumer concerns because of China’s poor track record on food safety in recent years. In 2008, dairy products tainted with the industrial chemical melamine led to the deaths of six infants and sickened thousands of others, while 10 people in Japan were sickened after eating frozen “gyoza” dumplings from China mixed with pesticide.

Food safety problems are not unique to China. Some food makers in Japan have been accused of mixing expired ingredients or falsifying expiration dates. A worker at a frozen food plant in Gunma Prefecture was convicted this week for lacing products with pesticide last year.

To ensure the safety of the food we consume, we may need to assume that lax safety control or wrongdoings can happen anywhere, and take preventive steps.

As Japan relies increasingly on imported foodstuffs, the issue is how to establish a cross-border system to ensure safety of such food supplies.

In addition to tighter inspections on such imports at customs here, cooperation with relevant authorities in countries that export foodstuffs to Japan will be needed.

The government on Wednesday held working-level talks with China on the Shanghai Husi case under the framework of the dialogue created in 2008 gyoza poisoning case.

Discussions for such cooperation should proceed even as Tokyo-Beijing political ties remain strained, since the issue involves the safety of the food people consume daily.