How safe is our food? — Some answers


With the revelations last week that Fujiya Co. had been using expired ingredients in its products, concerns about food safety are growing. Below are answers to some questions about sanitation rules and the Fujiya scandal.

What are the government’s rules on expiration dates for food?

Under the Food Sanitation Law, processed food must display one of two types of expiration dates — “shohi kigen” (consume-by date) or “shomi kigen” (best-by date).

The consume-by date is set for perishable products such as “bento” boxed lunches, bread, meat and cake, which may start to go bad within about five days of the date the product is processed.

The best-by date is for foods that last longer and can be eaten for a limited period after the expiry. The food may taste bad after the date has passed, but it will not make a person sick. The food in this category includes instant noodles, canned food, milk and milk products.

Both types of expiration dates show the period the maker guarantees quality and consumer safety as long as the product is not opened.

Products that will keep for a long time, such as soft drinks, chewing gum, sugar and ice cream, do not have to have expiration dates printed on the packaging.

Fresh fruit and vegetables also don’t need dates as well as most foodstuffs sold to firms.

Who decides the expiration dates and how are the dates decided?

Food makers, processors and retailers calculate expiration dates based on the law by testing the products and checking how long the raw materials in the products can sit on the shelf as well as considering the sanitary conditions of the facilities that made the products. For imported foods, importers set the dates after getting the same information from the makers.

What did Fujiya do wrong?

Fujiya admitted it has routinely used expired ingredients, including milk, cream, eggs, blueberry jams, chocolate flakes and apple filling, for the past seven years. The company also said it often printed consume-by dates on cream puffs and custard pudding that were one day later than its company rules specified between June 2003 and October 2006.

The company also revealed that the amount of bacteria in some of the products made at its Sapporo factory between last May and July exceeded the government’s limit of 100,000 bacteria per gram.

The company revealed this week that nine people suffered food poisoning in 1995 from eating spoiled custard-filled cakes made at a Fujiya factory in Izumisano, Osaka Prefecture. Osaka ordered Fujiya to stop the factory’s operations for two days for having broken the law.

How did Fujiya break the law?

Fujiya broke the law because the custard cakes were rotten.

Using ingredients or selling food products that have passed the expiration date is not a violation of the Food Sanitation Law, but it is against the law to either use or sell food that has rotted. The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry and local governments are now conducting a joint investigation to see if Fujiya used rotten ingredients or sold rotten products in any other cases.

The penalty for selling rotten food is imprisonment of up to three years or a fine of up to 3 million yen. Authorities can also order production suspended.

How does Fujiya decide the consume-by date?

Fujiya says it first tests a product kept at a temperature of 10 degrees to see how many days a product will continue to taste fresh and how many days it will retain the level of quality specified by the government. It takes the lower of the figures and multiplies it by 0.8 to come up with its expiration date.

For example, Fujiya’s consume-by date for custard pudding is seven days, which means the government standard is probably nine days.

Why has the Fujiya incident become such a big issue?

Consumers are growing more concerned about corporate misdeeds that lead to public harm, as there have been a number of incidents in the past several years in which people have been hurt — or even killed — by corporate negligence and coverups of defective products.

And Fujiya is not the first firm to be under fire for trying to conceal its problems. In another case of bad food being sold to the public, 14,000 people became sick in 2000 after drinking bad milk from Snow Brand Milk Products Co. The incident revealed that Snow Brand had a weak quality control system and poor transparency.