Annus Scandalous: A year of food safety scandals upsets Japan’s applecart

TOKYO —

Each December, the chief priest of Kyoto’s historic Kiyomizu temple unveils the single kanji voted by the public as best representing the past year. While the temple’s name means “clear water,” the character selected for 2007 was far from pure: “nise,” meaning fake, was chosen after a series of food-mislabeling scandals stuck in the nation’s craw and damaged the reputations of some of the country’s best-known food companies.

Although this year’s kanji was “change,” a deluge of new food safety scandals has shaken consumer confidence more than a James Bond martini. No deaths have yet been reported in Japan, but the public is increasingly concerned about what they put in their mouths — especially food imported from China, a country with which Japan has a famously fractious relationship.

But is it all a storm in a teacup, or is there more brewing under the surface? In interviews with consumers, retailers, restaurant owners and food importers, a multifaceted picture emerged of how the scandals have made 2008 a stomach-turning year for Japanese consumers.

“I’m worried about the food I buy these days, especially food that comes from China,” says Hiroko Saijo, a 45-year-old part-time worker from Yokohama. “I check carefully to see where everything comes from and avoid foods that I’m not sure about.”

Saijo is not alone. A government survey in September found that 89% of Japanese consumers would pick domestically produced products over imported foods. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported in February that since the Chinese gyoza scandal broke the previous month, increasing numbers of people stopped buying frozen dumplings and began making their own with fresh domestic ingredients. According to the agriculture ministry, imports of vegetables from China dropped nearly 40% year-on-year in the first three weeks of February. And that was a full six months before the industrial chemical melamine killed or sickened thousands of Chinese children.

Supermarkets have certainly noticed this shift in consumer behavior. “The scandals have led to more people avoiding delicatessen or processed foods and buying proper ingredients to cook at home,” says Kazuya Suzuki, a spokesman for the Peacock chain of grocery stores. “Whenever a scandal hits, sales of similar products drop. Sales of frozen foods fell by nearly half in some stores following the gyoza scandal.”

Restaurateurs are another group struggling to convince customers of food safety — a task made harder if you’re a Chinese manager of a Chinese restaurant. Etsuro Den, manager of Tom’s Seimen on a Shimokitazawa backstreet, takes a proactive approach to dispel diners’ fears.

“Every time new customers come in, I tell them that we only use fresh ingredients, nothing frozen,” says the Beijing native. “Once they taste the food, they come back.” Den adds that Chinese food is always cooked through, unlike Japanese dishes such as sashimi. And he notes that the scandals have played out very differently in his homeland.

“I sometimes read the Chinese papers, and they take the opposite stance to the Japanese media,” he says. For example, according to Chinese news reports, the gyoza at the center of the January scandal became tainted in transit or after they reached Japan.

The local media’s role has certainly not cut the mustard with “John,” a Tokyo-based New Zealander who runs a company importing seafood and vegetables (and who requested his real name not appear in this article). After the June issue of business magazine Diamond ran an in-depth review listing all retailers, restaurant chains and food processors that source foods from China, John’s company, which was listed, experienced a sudden halt in orders. His business was hit further when a substandard batch of frozen spinach was discovered at customs in Kobe. Although John dealt in completely different products — ones that had been certified as safe by Japanese import authorities — a large supermarket chain canceled a major contract. John says that his business is now toast, struggling on importing small volumes from countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the U.S.

The panic that these incidents have touched off may be due to the fact that Japanese are more conscious of food safety risks than people in other countries. So says Luke Nottage, an associate professor of law at Sydney University and contributor to the East Asia Forum blog.

“When we know very little about the odds [of a situation], we tend to underestimate them, so even Japan ignores some food safety risks,” he says. “But once we know more about their odds, even if small, we tend instead to overestimate them, so Japan perhaps overreports and overreacts now to things like melamine.”

Overreaction or no, there are certain steps consumers can take to safeguard themselves. A spokesman for the health ministry said that “consumers should check food doesn’t smell or taste strange, check the label and contact the manufacturer if they are concerned.” Careful not to point the finger at China, the spokesman says that “manufacturers and suppliers of all foods, regardless of where they are produced, are subject to the food hygiene law.”

But John takes the assurances of supermarkets, restaurant owners and the government with a pinch of salt. “Chinese food producers involved in exports of vegetables are dedicated and responsible, with world-class factories — in many instances, far more advanced and cleaner than food processing premises in Japan,” he says.

Neither does he mince his words about the media and rapacious company bosses. “When it comes to Chinese food products, the media make no attempt to differentiate between specific processors and importers and instead focus on the country of origin,” he says. “There are many unscrupulous Japanese importers motivated by short-term profit potential who pay no attention to processing standards or agricultural chemical applications. The scandals are issues of criminal intent and are not related to the genuine efforts of responsible importers, retailers and processors.”

Alphabet Soup

There are many organizations, both governmental and otherwise, that are responsible for certifying and accrediting organic products. In Japan, the official government body that oversees food certification is the Japanese Agricultural Standard (JAS), a part of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (www.maff.go.jp/j/jas/jas_kikaku/yuuki.html). JAS regulations are based on those formulated by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, an inter-governmental organization that determines all food standards. Products that conform to the standards are stamped with the green and white JAS label.

The International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (www.ifoam.org), or IFOAM, is a third-party certification board that acts as a worldwide umbrella organization. JONA, the Japan Organic and Natural Foods Association (www.jona-japan.org), is Japan’s independent non-governmental certification body, and a member of IFOAM. All products certified as organic under JONA regulations conform to both JAS and IFOAM standards.

In the Know

The Japanese media loves its food scandals, so the government has stepped up work to prevent future fodder for the news crews. Here are some resources to help put you at ease.

Japan’s Food Safety Commission runs a website (www.fsc.go.jp) with the latest alerts (in Japanese), as well as an English section discussing topics like BSE, mercury and genetically modified food.

Those worried about what they’re eating can hang out in the Consumer’s Room (www.maff.go.jp/j/heya), a Japanese-language site provided by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. The agency also has an English page (www.maff.go.jp/e).

Not to be left out, the Ministry of Health, Labor & Welfare maintains an informative food safety notice board in English (www.mhlw.go.jp/english/topics/foodsafety).

This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

  • 0

    outofmydepth

    why would japanese only worry about imported food? the many many many mislabeling scandals here of their food by their own people has me worried just as much. sure, blame it on foreign lands. that is always a winner.

  • 0

    buggerlugs

    They never worry because a Japanese would never knowingly endanger others, or there must have been some mistake. Japanese are perfect and only forign companies and people lie... yes, I am being a little sarcastic etc... can't trust any food here...

  • 0

    thepro

    I've seen more scandals by Japanese companies than by Chinese ones

  • 0

    bcbrownboy

    Yep, shoulda been called the anus scandalous.

  • 0

    toadold

    You hear about the Japanese companies because there are regulatory agencies and an open press. In China the problem is that someone takes a short cut to meet a quota but everybody in the chain of command keeps quite and keeps hopping that nothing bad will happen ever after it starts happening. Quality control is a big problem in China and they are making very slow progress on it. It worries the powers that be over there because if they have another baby poisoning scandal it could be the big riot will hit.

  • 0

    aintgottimetobl

    Toms siemen ?yeah I wanna try the fresh yoghurt...

  • 0

    fds

    a couple years before these chinese food scandals came out, i saw this program on the life of chinese yuppies. the mom would go out and buy her vegis in the morning so she could soak them in water all day. when asked why she did this she said it to get rid of the chemicals and pesticides and was common practice in china. stopped buying chinese produce after that.

  • 0

    dennis0bauer

    Interesting so the they focus on imported food scandals while diminishing the problem of the many homebased food scandals.

  • 0

    30061015

    We can see that trusting others to do the right thing with your money is folly. Trusting anyone with food you depend on is trusting them with your life. No one cares about you more than you, so growing your own is the only righteous choice. Its the only way to be truely free.

  • 0

    jeffrey

    Annus Scandalous: A year of food safety scandals upsets Japan’s applecart

    Anus scandal?

    We will not buy imported Chinese food. Rather frustrating situation, though, as finding frozen edamae in some stores that isn't from China is a challenge.

  • 0

    bdiego

    "For example, according to Chinese news reports, the gyoza at the center of the January scandal became tainted in transit or after they reached Japan."

    Actually this is out-dated. China has since acknowledge cases of the same poisoned gyoza sold in China. This is the way the government handles most safety issues, but it's improving. You can measure this by the number of months it takes an official to resign - I'm seeing about 2 months turnaround these days which is amazing.

    Bottom line, even Chinese don't believe the Chinese government when it comes to food safety. With the popularity of cell phones, information spreads fast. It took months for the Chinese government to officially confirm that baby formula was poisoned, long after New Zealand brought it up and the Chinese public was spreading the info by phone. The real shame is the sheer number of dead and sick babies all because a few people wanted to save a few hundred bucks a load. Human life measured at around a buck.

  • 0

    bdiego

    I have to admit, this guy has balls to run a restaurant called Tom’s Seimen and tell people with a straight face the food isn't "contaminated" by Tom.

  • 0

    Disillusioned

    This is sooooo wrong! You are more likely to find high levels of contaminants in local produce than in imported foods. The local jiji/baba food stalls are not regulated and I know they pump copious amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides into their foods. Even the regulations covering the amount of contaminates in rice are set at higher acceptable levels than in other developed countries. At least imported foods are screened, albeit, screened by corrupt processors. It should come as no surprise Japan is ready to discriminate against imported produce without checking in their own backyard.

  • 0

    30061015

    Disillusioned No doubt. Its said that a cabage gets sprayed about 30-40 times in Japan before you buy it. It China its worse, because the chemicals/amounts they use are so lethal & are banned in most other countries.

    What to do? Get to know local organic growers. Show interest and visit their farms & you will be rewarded.

  • 0

    bdiego

    That's just delusional. I've seen the same practices and observations of above posters about China - even the Chinese don't trust their own produce. There's a reason why party leadership in China doesn't buy public Chinese produce - they literally have private farms producing "organic" foods that can only be obtained by party leaders, the elite of China.

    Don't tell me you're actually willing to eat this?

    Let's look at the facts. Hundreds of Chinese infants have DIED and tens of thousands of infants got sick from kidney stones due to contaminated baby formula. Dozens of people in central America DIED from a contaminated batch of toiletries. Dozens of people in Europe got skin burns and rashes from contaminated lawn chairs. South Korea discovered TONS of Kimchi made in China filled with parasites. Dozens of pets and hundreds more (just the verified cases) DIED in America. Stop being delusional with wishful thinking.

  • 0

    bdiego

    The point is Japan is just one of a long list of countries pissed off about poisoned goods, including China itself. This isn't a problem with Chinese people, it's a problem with the government unwilling and unable to regulate their industry to the point that people are being murdered to save a buck.

  • 0

    medievaltimes

    so Japan perhaps overreports and overreacts

    Understatement.

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