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Can common sense penetrate the food market?


You don’t have to be paranoid to conclude that the recent series of food-labeling scandals represents the tip of the iceberg. With the Japanese market continually opening itself wider to food imports, and the government still unable or unwilling to untangle the tight, complicated interrelationships that form the distribution system, domestic food companies find it both necessary and tempting to fool all of the people some of the time in order to maintain their economic position.

However, much more than consumer trust is at stake here. Japan’s famous food culture is itself being challenged, but this time from within. Faced with evidence that meat distributors purposely misrepresent the products they sell because they know that no one can really tell the difference, the citizens are slowly starting to question certain assumptions that they previously considered inviolable.

In last Monday’s letters page of the Asahi Shimbun, a 72-year-old retired gentleman wrote that the scandals have caused him to wonder how so many restaurants and stores can sell the famed Matsuzaka beef from Mie Prefecture, when the reason the meat is so expensive is that only a few thousand head of cattle are raised every year.

Two weeks ago on Asahi TV’s “News Station,” a reporter, at the suggestion of a beef industry “insider,” compared two different cuts of meat that were significantly different in cost but that, removed from their packaging, looked exactly the same. One was a domestic product and the other, a less expensive imported product. The point was that it is easy to fool people because there is no outward indication of relative value, other than what the distributor says.

In a market economy, the value of a product is based on what consumers are willing to pay for it, and the belief here is that domestic meat is of better quality than imported meat. The unasked question is: Why do people believe it? Notwithstanding the mad-cow-disease scare that started the snowball rolling, the Japanese people still have a bedrock conviction that anything grown or raised in Japan is superior to the equivalent grown or raised overseas. This superiority, however, has no empirical basis. It is totally a matter of perception.

Being an island country, Japan’s obsession with food self-sufficiency is understandable, and one of the ways that the government and the agricultural industry helped justify the complex distribution system, which keeps domestic prices artificially high, was by convincing the public that Japanese produce was better than imported produce, even before barriers started coming down.

This thinking has exacerbated Japan’s “brand” mentality toward food, which is manifested in everything from TV travel shows to the giving of gifts. The latter has been a rich source of gaijin folklore for decades — the proverbial $50 melon — but its real meaning is even more insidious.

Some products in Japan, such as Matsuzaka beef, are usually purchased as gifts, meaning that the purchaser does not consume the product. Except for the very wealthy, most of us would never pay 5,000 yen for a few slices of meat for ourselves, but we might pay that much for something we are going to give to someone we want to impress.

Consequently, the intrinsic “quality” of such beef is beside the point, only the perceived quality is, since the real value of the product is based on how much of an impression it makes. Just as the Emperor provides a point of top-down reference for the social hierarchy that is the modern democracy of Japan, Matsuzaka beef is the pinnacle of the food hierarchy here, and everything that comes under it can be graded accordingly.

As long as consumers believe this, they will pay more for domestic meat (and apples and salmon and long onions . . .). But there are signs that this belief system may be eroding. Some skeptics have finally started to wonder out loud why Koshihikari rice grown in Niigata Prefecture (specifically the Uonuma region) is automatically more expensive than Koshihikari rice grown in Ibaraki Prefecture. After all, they’re the same strain of rice.

Obviously, authorities are needed to keep produce and meat suppliers honest, but inspections should be less about quality and more about safety. In the end, most Americans, at least, don’t really care where the cow that went into their Arby’s roast beef sandwich came from.

Many Japanese will say that that is where the difference lies. But that’s also where the problem arises. The greater refinement of the Japanese palate is a cultural myth that the domestic food industry exploits to no end. As more proof mounts that distributors were mislabeling chicken, beef and pork long before the mad-cow scare, the question becomes, why didn’t anyone taste the difference?

From the standpoint of ecology and common sense, food self-sufficiency is a noble and worthwhile goal, but it’s not diplomatically feasible in today’s global economy. If foreign-food imports are inevitable, then it’s better — ethically and economically — to compete on the basis of ingenuity and real quality rather than “brand” value. And by “ingenuity,” I don’t mean creative labeling. Just because you can fool all of the people some of the time, it doesn’t mean you should.