Scandals in food industry shatter safety myth

by Hiroko Tabuchi

The Associated Press

Ocean fresh sushi? Quality marbled beef? Exquisite confectionaries? Think again.

Japan has been hit by a slew of food safety and false labeling scandals that is threatening to wreck its image as a country of culinary wonders, squeaky-clean factories and impeccable sanitation.

In the most recent scandal, a venerable maker of traditional sweets was found to have recycled the bean paste in its rice cakes, collecting old filling from leftover boxes and shipping them out as new.

Investigators also found that Akafuku Co., based in Mie Prefecture, had long misguided consumers by shipping out old sweets it stored in freezers, stamped with a production date that was in fact the date old cakes were thawed.

“I knew what we were doing was wrong,” a grave-looking Akafuku President Noriyasu Hamada said last week. “The responsibility lies with me.”

Those revelations came on the heels of a raid by health authorities of meat processor Meat Hope Co. in Hokkaido on suspicions it falsely labeled pork, chicken and beef mixture as pure ground beef — a practice that reportedly had gone on at least two decades. Its president was arrested Wednesday on charges of violating laws that ban the false labeling of products.

A different meat processor, Hinaidori, based in Akita Prefecture, was accused last week of taking meat from retired roosting chickens, which the company had bought at rock-bottom prices, and shipping them out as top-quality free-range chicken.

While there have been no reports of illness or food-poisoning related to any of the scandals, they have dominated the media and alarmed shoppers.

The incidents also come as consumers — appalled over rampant product safety problems in neighboring China, a major trading partner — had been turning to domestic produce as a sure sign of quality.

“I’ve always tried to buy domestic because I thought that was safer, but now I can’t trust anybody,” said Toshie Kano, 72, who was grocery shopping at a supermarket in central Tokyo.

“These companies can’t cut corners with things we eat. Just imagine what we’ve been feeding our children,” she said.

The scandals have not been confined to regional companies. Fujiya Co., one of Japan’s top confectioners, admitted in February to using out-of-date milk, cream and eggs in cream puffs distributed nationwide. Cookie maker Ishiya Trading Co. followed suit, recalling its sweets after it admitted falsifying expiration dates to get rid of excess stock.

Analysts say a persistent price war in the food industry has squeezed profits, especially at smaller companies, and spurred them to cut corners.

They also worry that the scandals have hurt the image of Japanese food overseas at a time when companies are looking to expand internationally to augment sluggish profits at home.

“This is a big blow for food companies who want to start international operations or boost overseas sales,” said Hiroshi Saji, an industry analyst at Mizuho Securities. “These scandals have tainted the Japan brand.”

Authorities, meanwhile, have struggled to police violators.

“The recent violations are so flagrant, we’re looking at a moral problem and that’s hard to regulate,” said Takashi Tagami, an official at the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. “Perhaps we need to increase penalties for offenders.”

The scandals have even raised suspicion over the authenticity and safety of some of the nation’s favorite dishes, including sushi, marbled beef and shark’s fin.

Discount sushi stores have been reported to frequently use cheap substitutes for delicacies like eel and sea bream. For example, a freshwater species called the Nile tilapia, caught in Egypt, is reportedly served as sea bream in many outlets.

Other fake foods “exposed” in the media include fatty tuna mixed from tuna bits and pork lard; shark’s fin made from gelatin; and a bizarre reconstituted egg-in-a-tube that is often used in packed lunches and salads.

Japan has not been immune to food scares. In 2000, Snow Brand Milk Products Co. shipped old milk and sickened more than 14,000 people, the country’s worst-ever outbreak of food poisoning.