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.