The dark side of the food industry

TOKYO —

It’s no secret that laws have loopholes, labels get falsified, rules get bent and consumers get fooled.

The food industry seems especially vulnerable. We got a taste of that early in the new year when it surfaced that the Aichi Prefecture-based disposal firm Daiko, instead of dumping, as instructed, some 40,000 potentially flawed frozen beef cutlets it had received from curry restaurant chain Coco Ichibanya, quietly sold them to two local supermarkets. One of the cutlets may have contained a small contaminant, a stray bit of plastic, Coco Ichibanya feared. The attempted disposal was a well-meant safety precaution but it miscarried.

Daiko is the alleged villain of the drama, but there are many others of many similar dramas, says Spa! (Feb 9-16). To read its report is to confront an uncomfortable question: What sort of refuse are we feeding ourselves? Or perhaps more to the point: What are we being fed?

A note of caution seems in order. In the absence of medical testimony – Spa! presents none – the overall good health of the Japanese people might warn us against making too much of the apparent rot in the dauntingly complex distribution system that composes the national food chain. On the other hand, how tolerant should consumers be? Granted that zero tolerance would endanger an industry that provides us the convenient, cheap, instant, ready-to-eat fare we’ve come to depend on. Does recognizing that constitute blanket permission to jettison all standards?

The Daiko affair came to light by a fluke – the disposal firm’s unusual failure to repackage the Ichibanya cutlets before reselling them. Otherwise, says food industry analyst Hirokazu Kawagishi, “there is no way we’d ever have known about it.

“The concealment of point of origin and reshipment of items meant for disposal,” he adds, “are widespread practices in the food and wholesale industries.”

Once a thing becomes “widespread,” as in, “Everybody does it,” it becomes, psychologically if not legally, “permissible.”

“Just about every supermarket makes some [commercial] use of meat and fish that’s past its sell-by date,” a store manager tells Spa! “And nobody involved has the faintest sense of wrongdoing.”

Even legally speaking, the situation is ambiguous. The Food Sanitation Law requires that “the final processing date” appear on the label. But what is the “final processing date”? The day the product was made? The day it was defrosted? The day it was wrapped? It’s deplorable no doubt but not surprising that managers in a highly competitive business interpret laws to suit their convenience.

Forget about changing that anytime soon, a meat wholesaler tells Spa!. “Supply and demand” – of and for flawed food products whose flaws don’t show – “are both increasing.”

Of course they are, given the market’s insistence on rock-bottom prices. “To minimize the loss involved in disposing of food, we’ll combine items past their sell-by date into ingredients for ultra-cheap bentos selling for 200-300 yen,” says a supermarket manager.

Let the buyer beware. This is the hidden cost of cheap food. Somebody blunders, a scandal ensues – “but it soon blows over,” observes a meat wholesaler Spa! speaks to. He’s not being cynical, merely stating a fact.

Japan Today

  • 6

    Yubaru

    Here's to all those folks that claim that Japanese food is the safest and the best in the world. What you dont see CAN hurt you!!

  • 15

    commanteer

    I have been telling Japanese this for years, as I know it to be a fact. That said, there are few places where there are not things like this going on. And some, such as China, have much more rampant abuses.

    Oddly, this is why I feel McDonald's is far safer than the typical low priced izakaya or other cheap food business. McDonald's is constantly being watched, and they have to be more careful. They also have oversight standards as a large corporation. The local budget izakaya is being watched by nobody.

    But questionable, tainted or expired food products can slip through anywhere. Buyer beware.

  • 0

    warispeace

    In a great book, Blood and earth : modern slavery, ecocide, and the secret to saving the world, Kevin Bales writes about the link between slavery, the mangrove forests being cut to make shrimp farms and rising CO2 emissions.

    All cheap food has a huge cost in terms of people's lives and the environment. There is no free lunch.

  • -1

    SenseNotSoCommon

    Shake the tree a bit: outlaw any more than one middleman between grower and retailer.

  • 1

    shonanbb

    Use your nose and make judgements. That is what I do.

  • 4

    commanteer

    outlaw any more than one middleman between grower and retailer.

    Only Santa Claus can work without a middleman. The rest of us have to abide by the laws of economics and basic logistic realities.

    Not to mention, I have met unethical growers and retailers.

  • -2

    SenseNotSoCommon

    Only Santa Claus can work without a middleman

    Admitted, it's a paradigm shift.

    The supply chain is a trough with far too many snouts gorging themselves from it. What's left at the end bears no resemblance to the original.

    Must we run out of insulin before people wake up❓

  • 12

    tmarie

    ONE example mentioned? The author could have at least given more. Let's see, there was the widespread hotels and restaurants lying about the food they were serving and charging insane prices for (canned juice being sold as freshly squeezed, types of fish and meat lied about), areas in Gifu serving their kids Fukushima beef in school lunches even though it was banned. Lord, how many relabeling scandals have there been with food from Fukushima and expired foods? Let's not forget about the Snow Brand cover up, the water at USJ, the number of deaths from food poisoning, the outbreaks like a few months ago in Aichi were small children were served contaminated food and many were hospitalized... The list goes on and on here. Yet I rarely hear of recalls, companies and people being prosecuted. Constantly get told how safe the food is here...

  • 9

    Citizen2012

    The list goes on and on here. Yet I rarely hear of recalls, companies and people being prosecuted. Constantly get told how safe the food is here...

    Only happening because there is no prosecution and zero consumer protection.

  • 4

    GW

    Like so many problems here the REAL size of them are MUCH MUCH bigger than being reported you have to assume this is happening all over the place.

    Like with so many regulations etc, domestically there is virtually no enforcement, little to no checking, RAMPANT abuse & no one or any company gets nailed for much, other than they few who are sacrificed so the many can simply carry on!

    This happened repeatedly as tmarie correctly points out, all we can do is use our best judgment

  • 2

    roughneck

    At least people won't spit on your food because you didn't tip them enough for doing their job that they get paid for. Also, yes, this is not heaven, so things happen. But that is still a lot less than anywhere else in the world.

  • 0

    smithinjapan

    There is still a lot of food snobbery here when in fact many people have no clue about what they are eating, or can have faith about where it comes from. And, as the article states in the interview with Spa!, it's not going to change any time soon.

    tmarie puts forth a few good examples that tough on what I was talking about with the snobbery as well as with how rampant the issue is: "there was the widespread hotels and restaurants lying about the food they were serving and charging insane prices for (canned juice being sold as freshly squeezed, types of fish and meat lied about)", not to mention "high-class" restaurants serving beef they claimed was the best in the world but was just cheap stuff injected with fat, etc.

    It's disgraceful.

  • 1

    Reckless

    Don't recall getting sick from food much in Japan or the US as long as I make my own food at home or stick to reputable restaurants that I am familiar with.

    Will suggest however you stay away from conbini bentos in afternoon and evening unless you have a strong gut.

  • 3

    Tessa

    There is still a lot of food snobbery here when in fact many people have no clue about what they are eating, or can have faith about where it comes from.

    Yes. I remember a few years ago when it came to light that Chinese tourists in Hokkaido has been served inferior beef in place of the high-grade beef that they paid for. At that time, the general consensus around me was the those tourists deserved to be ripped off for being such a bunch of hicks who couldn't tell the difference. Then ... the whole "giso" scandal broke out, embarrassing quite a few of my Japanese acquaintances, who had been merrily bragging about how superior the food was in certain hotels and restaurants in Osaka, and how discerning their (Japanese, of course!) tastebuds were compared to the barbarian hordes. Oh, how I laughed!

  • 2

    daito_hak

    Look. There was the news that a pharmaceutical company has falsified for 40 years the ingredients it used to produce blood products and vaccins.

    So if the Japanese Inc fells free to lie on such important health related products with apparently little penal consequences, you can be sure that the old boys managing Japanese companies in the food industry will sell you outdated food with whatever thing they can put inside it.

  • 1

    Abbeyroad45

    Yes, I work in the food industry. There is very little oversight until someone gets sick, and even then it's pretty easy to pay the fine and go on the same as before. I've been to client restaurants and seen rats and roaches running around the kitchen. I won't take my kid to eat at most of the restaurants in my town because I've seen what goes on in the back. Processed foods and supermarkets aren't much better.

  • 2

    trinklets2

    I did work in 2 food factories servicing 2 different combini chains. I have to be partial to one but both do have high standard for their products. In line with the news, Iam just worried about the rice, noodles,karaage, veggies that are thrown away. Were those really recycled as animal feeds? Or as fertilizer? Or....

  • 1

    sighclops

    It's really the trifecta of a lack of an independent commission, lack of legal action / punishment & a sheepish public that plagues Japan in every aspect of business - with the food industry being near the top of the pile.

  • 0

    Soufa King Madd

    Then there's the vegetable curry or vegetable soup that always has pork.

  • -2

    Bobby Boogie

    Hey folks a few thing that I noticed while shopping at the supermarkets here in Japan (I'm American and have been here 2 years) is that the safest foods in the market are located at its boundaries ...Against the walls i.e. fresh fruits and veggies, bakery items & dairy products I think that the owners of these markets must have visited an American markets because they are much the same, stay away from frozen,and canned foods also watch your receipts I have been over charged many time and besides having the hassle of getting my money back and the usual we are sorry it takes a lot of time to prove it. I pride myself on being a good consumer even here in Japan which surprises the Japanese people I have come into contact with because no one seems to say anything much after being ripped off.

  • 2

    5SpeedRacer5

    I have no platitudes or promises, but a few observations gathered over many years. Overall, I have to say that Japanese food is the cleanest I have found throughout the world. I remember one really nasty hole in Kobe about 20 years ago, and another in Aiichi about 15 years ago, and the odd Chinese restaurant over the years, but gosh if the vast majority of Japanese restaurants aren't generally the cleanest you can find anywhere. Of course, the more upscale you go, the more this is true. Most cooks I encounter are artists, and you can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear. They value their reputations and their products. They are knowledgeable, experienced, and disciplined.

    But even going downscale, maybe I am living in a special universe, but even at a place like McDs, processes and procedures are followed to the letter. The places are clean and smell nice. Consistency. Discipline. Process. I can't imagine that someone could go to all that trouble and then look the other way as they poison their customers.

    Employees are paid well, more or less. Mostly less, haha, but there is no animosity against customers, at least, like one might see in a scene from Fight Club.

    And any country that can serve sushi or sashimi while looking you straight in the eye must have some reason to be confident about its food procedures.

    Exceptions? Sure. They exist, but they prove the rule that prevails in any other country you could name. Restaurant workers abroad are slovenly, surly, barely educated, sketchy.... you name it. Their managers might be better, but might not be, and they don't get tips. The cooks? Come on. At all but the very highest levels of cuisine, nobody takes pride in anything, do they? If they valued personal responsibility, why would they be working in "food service," right? By the way, yes I have worked in food service before. Have you?

    As with most things, Japan is not perfect, but it is constantly held to the highest standards. It seems clear that the rest of the world is not really even trying. Or maybe I am just hanging around all the right places. Your mileage may vary.

  • -1

    igloobuyer

    @5SpeedRacer

    You haven't been to many kitchens in Ramen restaurants, Chinese restaurants, Izakaya or any other cheap place have you. How many times have I seen cockroaches crawling on the floor and on the table in restaurants in Japan. One time one cockroach was seen in a cafe I worked at in New Zealand - the place shut down for the day to fumigate. You won't see that in Japan. I once had a Japanese health inspector as an English student - they hardly ever do random health and safety checks like they do in the UK or NZ etc.

  • 0

    goldorak

    That's a world problem not Japan specific. All food industry giants are willing to do anything to make a few extra bucks even if it means lowering their health and hygiene requirements.

    Same with smaller businesses, I don't believe Japanese standards are much worse than the rest of the developed world. Sure you have filthy places where unhealthy food is cooked and served to customers but haven't we all seen that in different countries including some in North America, Europe, Oz, NZ etc?

    Hygiene, productivity, food and profit do not mix well, sadly. Like a few on here I tend to think Japan is doing ok when it comes to food hygiene. Lets put it this way, "unhygienic' isn't the first word that comes to mind when I hear "Japan food industry".

  • -2

    Futaro Gamagori

    why are you still in Japan?

  • 0

    kurisupisu

    Old food being repackaged as new? Yes, I've noticed the scandals over the years and I don't forget the companies involved in these deceptions. I still won't buy Snow Brand for example and due to all sorts of fraud after Fukushima I will only buy vegetables from a local farmer directly......

  • 0

    Joeintokyo

    Another "dark side" of the food industry--at least the supermarket business--is one dealing with outright customer fraud. They rip off their customers by "over-weighing" food. I refuse to shop anymore at a couple of supermarkets in my area because the meat is always 8-10 grams less than what it says on the package. This starts to add up when you're buying pricey meat. Get a kitchen scale and see for yourself.

  • -3

    TakahiroDomingo

    you can always be cheated, its so easy to abuse simple trust. cheating happens everywhere in food quality. i think japan ranks quite low in food cheating when compared to the rest of the world.

    question: where did the "40,000 potentially flawed frozen beef cutlets from curry restaurant chain Coco Ichibanya" come from? China???

  • -2

    igloobuyer

    TakahiroDomingoFEB. 16, 2016 - 06:39PM JST

    you can always be cheated, its so easy to abuse simple trust. cheating happens everywhere in food quality. i think japan ranks quite low in food cheating when compared to the rest of the world. question: where did the "40,000 potentially flawed frozen beef cutlets from curry restaurant chain Coco Ichibanya" come from? China???

    Think again and do a little research, you only have to read the news to see all the food scandals in Japan compared to western countries. Enough with blind believes about how Japan does things better.

  • -4

    mukashiyokatta

    Very dumb Californians voted AGAINST requiring GMO ingredients to be listed on food labels. Can you imagine? -- they are not bothered about eating FRANKENFOOD!

  • 0

    wipeout

    Think again and do a little research, you only have to read the news to see all the food scandals in Japan compared to western countries.

    More or fewer? And which western countries? There are a lot of them, and I suspect you're talking about the very few that you have personal knowledge of.

  • -1

    chisineko

    The only true test is -Does it make you sick. Let the buyer beware is still a pretty good rule to follow.

  • 1

    Farmboy

    Japanese people who have a traditional diet, and cook in the traditional way, will live a long time. Japanese people who buy pre-cooked, pre-packaged junk food will get what they get.

  • 1

    Rik314

    Sadly, in Japan, sometimes there is an attitude that you are only wrong when you get caught.

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