Scandals threaten Japan's image of culinary purity

The Associated Press

Ocean-fresh sushi? Quality marbled beef? Exquisite confectioneries? 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 Japanese sweets was found to have recycled the red-bean filling in its rice cakes, collecting old filling from leftover boxes and shipping out the cakes as new.

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

"I knew what we were doing was wrong," a grave-looking Akafuku President Noriyasu Hamada told reporters last month. "The responsibility lies with me."

Those revelations came on the heels of a raid by health authorities of meat processor Meat Hope Co. in northern Japan on suspicions it falsely labeled pork, chicken and beef mixture as pure ground beef -- a practice media reports said had gone on at least two decades. Its president was arrested Wednesday for violating Japan's competition laws, which ban the false labeling of products.

A separate meat processor 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.

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

The incidents also come as Japanese consumers -- appalled over rampant product safety problems in neighboring China, a major trading partner -- had been turning to domestically produced food 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, a retiree 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."

The scandals have not been confined to regional companies.

Fujiya Co., one of Japan's top confectioners, admitted in February to having used out-of-date milk, cream and eggs in cream puffs distributed nationwide.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 Japan's food industry has squeezed profits, especially at smaller companies, and spurred them to cut corners.

They worry that the scandals have hurt the image of Japanese food overseas at a time when companies here 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 Health Ministry official Takashi Tagami. "Perhaps we need to increase penalties for offenders."

The latest 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 frequently use cheap substitutes for delicacies such as eel and sea bream, local media allege. For example, Nile tilapia, a freshwater fish, is reportedly served as sea bream in many stores.

Other fake foods reported by local media include fatty tuna made from tuna bits mixed with 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 in the country's worst-ever outbreak of food poisoning.

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