Scandals shatter Japan’s age-old food safety myth

By Hiroko Tabuchi, AP

TOKYO — Ocean fresh sushi? Quality marbled beef? Exquisite confectionaries? 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 shipped them out as new.

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

“I knew what we were doing was wrong,” a grave-looking Akafuku President Noriyasu Hamada told reporters on Tuesday. “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.

While there have been no reports of illness or food-poisoning related to any of the scandals, they have dominated local media and alarmed Japanese 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 domestic produce 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 grocery shopping at a supermarket in central Tokyo.