The end of the rainy season has brought the high temperatures and soaring humidity that typify Japanese summers everywhere except at mountain resorts or in Hokkaido. It also brings a risk most people seldom seem to consider: the very real danger of food poisoning.
People may feel less carefree this summer, in the wake of the Snow Brand Milk Products Co. scandal. With the total number of victims of the mass food-poisoning outbreak caused by substandard sanitation procedures at the firm’s Osaka plant now standing at more than 14,700, it is clear that casual confidence in the safety of a brand-name food product can be misplaced. The subject may not appear to concern weekend crowds flocking to swimming pools, beaches and mountains — or company employees heading for beer halls at the end of a long workday — but there are plentiful signs that it should.
Some of the Snow Brand victims required hospitalization for their symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea. One was an elderly woman whose death doctors attribute to the food-poisoning outbreak. Thoughtful people have serious reservations about the eagerness expressed by Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Yoichi Tani to give Snow Brand products full safety clearance “as swiftly as possible.” This raises the specter of a too-rapid rush to return to full-scale business by a company whose careless disregard for the public’s health is having continuing repercussions.
Mr. Tani made his comment just before a meeting of the Lower House Agriculture Committee was convened, despite the Diet recess, in order to deal with the issue of the Snow Brand poisoning outbreak. His stated purpose in hoping for quick clearance for its products is to allay lingering public fears about their health risks. Indeed. Perhaps he had in mind the fallout affecting the entire dairy-products industry. Mr. Tani should need no reminding that explanations by company officials as reports of illness caused by Snow Brand products grew were not only inconsistent, they were sometimes deliberately misleading and incomplete, if not downright false.
It has to be obvious to both government officials and everyone in the food and beverage industry that this is not the time to condone any failure by manufacturers to comply with the basic requirements of the Food Sanitation Law. This legislation, enacted in 1947, covers virtually the entire foodstuff range and specifically regulates the cleanliness of machinery and equipment used to produce and process foods. Snow Brand failed to comply. The thorough inspections it has been conducting since is putting the cart before the horse.
It should also be obvious that Japan’s muggy summer weather presents special health risks, especially combined with unsanitary production facilities and techniques. The last few weeks have made that abundantly clear, with numerous reports of product recalls or consumer complaints about suspicious foods and beverages. These have included cheese containing bits of polyvinyl chloride tape and milk products with a sour taste (both from makers other than Snow Brand), mold detected in packaged pasta and fried-noodle dishes, mold also found in curry-flavored buns from a major confectionery, as well as cup-desserts with an “unpleasant” smell from a different plant of the same baking company.
And then there is the case of Kirin Speed, the popular sports drink produced and marketed by Kirin Beverage Corp., the soft-drinks arm of the prestigious Kirin Brewery Co. Kirin Beverage seemed to be acting with the expected responsibility when it immediately announced the recall of 1.36 million cans and bottles of the drink after it reportedly left 10 people feeling sick because of its “peculiar” taste. Four people sought medical advice. Yet the company failed to remove the product from 40,000 vending machines nationwide, citing a staff shortage.
Kirin Beverage has since reported finding that the drink was “untainted.” Perhaps, although the company did blame “chemical changes” in some of the ingredients, such as vitamins and amino acids, that possibly were affected by heat during the manufacturing process.
This is an age in which few family members take meals together and young, single people eat on the run at any time of day or night. Home cooking is declining and dependence on packaged convenience foods and fast-food restaurants is rising as men and women postpone marriage and more wives and mothers join the workforce. Rather than rushing an errant company’s products back to market, the public requires assurance from the agriculture minister that the Food Sanitation Law is being fully implemented and that the foods and beverages we consume daily are truly safe.
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