Hankyu Hanshin Hotels Co. has been misrepresenting items on its menus for seven years at eateries in at least four prefectures, possibly scamming some 79,000 patrons in the process, and management is blaming the misdeeds on employees ignorant about the law.

The hotelier said Friday it is being inundated with calls from irate customers seeking reimbursement for their meals.

The wrongdoing, which according to media reports included claiming on menus that frozen fish was fresh, prepared chocolate was hand-made, and boasting a prestigious red caviar that turns out was flying fish eggs, started in March 2006 and ended last month. As of Thursday morning, the firm had reimbursed 3,480 customers to the tune of ¥12.2 million.

The company estimates the final amount of compensation may reach ¥110 million.

According to media reports, no patron has fallen ill from eating any of the food items.

Hiroshi Desaki, president of the hotelier, told reporters Thursday the firm never intended to fabricate its menus, laying the litany of mislabelled fare on workers who lacked legal knowledge.

Although employees in most cases thought misrepresenting food was highly unethical, they failed to realize they were acting illegality, a spokesman for the hotelier claimed Friday, fiercely denying the firm ever set out to hoodwink its customers.

“Our employees, be they chefs or salespeople, just didn’t understand the standard laws concerning food labeling. So even in finding menus that lied about the fare, they just didn’t know they weren’t allowed to serve the (misrepresented food),” the spokesman said, lamenting the fact that because no worker ever dared to openly question the scam and explore its possible illegality, hordes of astonished reporters are now sneering at what they see as the firm’s absolute lack of moral fiber.

During the press conference Thursday, Desaki apologized for betraying the public’s trust. “We never intended to rake in profits by (misrepresenting food),” he said, expressing the firm’s determination to get to the bottom of the misdeeds.

Six menu items will be subject to scrutiny, including pork dishes in which the origins of the meat were falsified.

The firm admitted it was wrongfully calling a ready-made chocolate sauce its own.

“It appears our employees were touting the sauce as handmade because they thought that would make the (item) sound more attractive,” board director Masanobu Morimoto explained at one point during Thursday’s press conference. When asked if that amounted to deliberate fabrication, he repeated it happened due to “employees’ lack of knowledge.”

Such false labelling has so far been detected at 23 restaurants and other venues operated by the firm, including eight hotels in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Hyogo prefectures.

A total of 10 executives, including Desaki, will face pay cuts as punishment, with the president’s salary subject to a 20 percent cut for the time being.

Kazuo Sumi, president of Hankyu Hanshin Holdings Inc., will voluntarily return 50 percent of his salary.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.