A divisive deregulation is on the horizon at Tokyo’s Toyosu wholesale food market, with rules that limit large-volume fish purchases to intermediate wholesalers, select major supermarkets and other certified entities expected to be removed in June 2020.

The move is among measures announced by the central government and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which supervise and manage the market, to shore up fish trading volumes.

While some intermediate wholesalers welcome the move, others worry that the change could cause confusion and lead to buyers poorly skilled at evaluating the quality of fish entering the market.

Under the current system, only entities accredited by the metropolitan government, including some sushi chains, are permitted to buy the large volumes of fish brought by wholesalers to Toyosu from fishing ports across the country. Exceptions, however, are granted to non-accredited third-party buyers for leftover products or items arriving at Toyosu after market hours.

Selling to third-party buyers has become standard practice in recent years due to a decrease in intermediate wholesalers and slowing sales at fish stores. A wholesaler official said such buyers are now “essential players and business partners.”

Against this background, the metropolitan government plans to review the rules at Toyosu, which replaced the functions of Tokyo’s Tsukiji market in October 2018, to scrap qualifications for large-lot purchases and allow sales to a wide range of buyers from the start of market hours.

Wholesalers with sluggish sales have welcomed the expected change as an opportunity to turn their businesses around.

“We want to take back the flow (of sales) to those outside the market,” such as high-performing conveyor-belt sushi restaurant operators, an executive at a wholesaler said. A representative of a midsize supermarket chain in Tokyo, which currently buys fish from intermediate wholesalers, also lauded the move, saying, “We can cut costs through direct purchases from wholesalers.”

Intermediate wholesalers, which have been playing a pivotal role in the fish market, including during the days of the Tsukiji market, are vehemently opposed to the deregulation.

“Evaluating fish is difficult even for professionals,” an employee at a long-established intermediate wholesaler said. “Consumers will lose out if businesses (with low evaluation skills) buy low-quality fish at high prices at the market and put the products on sale.”

A different middleman said intermediate wholesalers often find and remove inedible fish from the market, but allowing newcomers could hamper such safety check functions.

The planned deregulation is expected to exclude some special fish that require expertise, such as bluefin tuna — one of which sold at a record ¥333.6 million at this year’s first auction at Toyosu — while covering transactions of most nonauctioned types of fish, such as horse mackerel and sardines.

With the high interest from food-related businesses not currently involved in the market, there are concerns that trading could be monopolized by buyers with financial strength or from overseas.

Metropolitan government officials and people related to the market are set to discuss details of the deregulation while trying to ensure fair transactions.

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