Snow Brand faces criminal probe over tainted milk

Osaka Prefectural Police will launch a criminal investigation into an outbreak of food poisoning attributed to Snow Brand Milk Products Co. goods on suspicion of professional negligence resulting in bodily injury as well as violations of the Food Hygiene Law, police sources said Wednesday.

Police plan to question Snow Brand executives, and to determine whether there is a causal relationship between contaminated Snow Brand milk products and the food poisoning cases, the sources said. Since late June, more than 14,000 people in 13 prefectures in western Japan have reportedly fallen ill after consuming Snow Brand’s low-fat and calcium-enriched milk.

Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori said Wednesday that top executives of Snow Brand are “naturally” responsible for the food-poisoning scandal.

“Not only rank-and-file workers, but also the executives are getting slack on the job,” Mori told reporters at his official residence. “I think the executives should teach all their employees to make products carefully.”

Meanwhile, the company on Wednesday started to gradually suspend production of milk-related products at its 21 milk-processing plants nationwide to carry out emergency hygiene inspections.

Most Snow Brand plants, except for Tokyo’s Hino plant and the Osaka facility in which the bacteria believed to have been responsible for the food poisoning was detected, continued partial operations Wednesday as they claimed to have commitments to deliver some products to clients.

Snow Brand made a surprise announcement late Tuesday night to suspend output of milk-related products so the entire manufacturing process can be inspected.

The inspection is expected to take one week, a Snow Brand executive said.

Milk-related products account for a third of Snow Brand’s revenues.

The company’s Nagoya and Fukuoka factories, its Hokuriku plant in Ishikawa Prefecture and Miyakonojo facility in Miyazaki Prefecture reused processed-milk products that had not been shipped with fresh ingredients to make new batches of the same kind of milk.

A Health and Welfare Ministry ordinance on dairy products, based on the Food Sanitation Law, prohibits reusing milk products to make the same kind of product. However, recycling is permitted to make different milk products as long as they are recycled within their shelf lives.

The Hokuriku plant said it does not believe its actions violated the law.

The Nagoya factory also denied any wrongdoing, saying in a statement, “The products that were reused were ones produced in excess as reserves to be used in the event of sudden increases in orders, and it makes up only a tiny portion of the entire production line.”

None of the plants said it used products that had been shipped out but returned.

Meanwhile, Kobe officials said Snow Brand’s Kobe plant recycled processed milk to make other kinds of milk beverages — a procedure that does not infringe on the ministerial decree.

The Kobe facility used processed milk that had been transported out of the factory but returned due to ordering mistakes to make coffee milk and other beverages, the officials said. Products whose sell-by dates had expired were discarded, they added.

“We do not consider the products as having been shipped out, and we have determined the process is not illegal. One way of looking at it is that recycling milk prevents resources from being wasted,” a city official said.

A company manual governing the recycling of milk products at the Osaka plant specified that processed milk products, such as low-fat milk, that are no older than five days can be recycled. The products reportedly had shelf lives of seven days.

However, Snow Brand admitted it had reused products that were six or seven days old, according to a Social Democratic Party investigative team.

The company reportedly said it recycled milk that was not actually delivered to stores because of ordering mistakes.