Japan Concerned After Rash of Food Safety Incidents

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Nando Times

By MARI YAMAGUCHI, Associated Press

TOKYO (August 30, 2000 3:50 p.m. EDT http://www.nandotimes.com)

- The initial shock was bad enough. Not only had Japan's largest dairy company sickened nearly 15,000 people with contaminated milk, it had routinely - though secretly - recycled old milk to make other products.

But what has followed is enough to ruin anyone's appetite: dead lizards in potato chips, worms in pastries, flies in canned juice. Barraged for a week with such daily horror stories, many Japanese are wondering if it's safe to eat or drink anything anymore.

"Every day we hear about some new problem, and it's shocking," said Tokyo housewife Toshie Ojima. "But these things were probably happening all along and we just didn't know about it."

Concerns over food safety have grown so strong they are now being debated on the parliament floor.

"Many of the incidents are the result of sloppiness and complacency," Deputy Health Minister Yutaka Fukushima said at a recent parliamentary meeting. "Manufacturers should return to the very basic and think again about food safety."

Food makers aren't the only problem. The media has been dominated recently by reports that another big brand name - Mitsubishi Motors - hid consumer complaints for years instead of examining whether their vehicles had potential dangers.

"It is enough to really make one wonder," said a front-page editorial in the Asahi, one of Japan's largest newspapers. "Consumer trust in corporate sincerity is growing shakier."

The food scare began in late June, when some 14,800 people were sickened by staph bacteria in lowfat milk produced by Snow Brand Milk Products Co.

An investigation revealed the company routinely recycled milk returned from stores, including some with expired freshness dates, for use in cheese and other products.

Since then, the discovery of any foreign object in food or drink has been enough to prompt huge recalls.

So far this month, at least 18 cases of food contamination led to recalls, according to the state-funded Japan Food Hygiene Association. These included by Kikkoman Corp.'s recall of 25,300 cans of Del Monte-brand tomato sauce and 36,000 jars of pasta sauce after broken glass was found in one. Yakult Honsha Co. had to recall 446,800 cans of fruit juice after one was found to contain a shard of plastic.

Such stories are taking their psychological toll.

A recent survey published by the nation's largest newspaper, the Yomiuri, showed more than half of 1,983 respondents are afraid they or their family members may suffer food poisoning before the summer is out.

Some 45 percent indicated they don't trust manufacturers' hygiene standards and nearly 54 percent said they believe even drinking tap water is unsafe.

Still, Kazuya Fujiwara, spokesman for Japanese Consumers' Cooperative Union, one of Japan's largest food distributors, said food contamination is not on the rise. It is merely getting more attention.

"The Snow Brand case only triggered the existing problem of food contamination to become a social issue," he said. "It is a reminder to consumers of the abundant dangers of what they eat."

Just four years ago, for example, food contaminated with E. coli bacteria claimed 12 lives and sickened more than 10,000 people in Japan. Most of the victims were children and the elderly, who have less resistance to bacterial infections.

Fujiwara said the problem cannot be solved unless the government adopts stricter legal protections for consumers.

And many analysts familiar with Japan's corporate system see the recent food contamination cases - and the Mitsubishi Motors scandal - as the inevitable result of lax concern for consumers.

"Very basic principles of manufacturing are falling apart at many companies in various industries," Keio University business professor Keinosuke Ono wrote in the recent issue of the Weekly Toyo Keizai magazine, a respected economic journal.

"These cases remind us of the considerable lack of responsibility and commitment among corporations," he wrote.

A slew of high-profile incidents involving food and drink contamination are creating an uproar in Japan. Here are some recent examples: ---

BAD MILK: Lowfat milk produced by Snow Brand Milk Products Co., Japan's largest dairy products maker, sickened nearly 14,800 people in western Japan because of staph germ contamination. The company shut down operations at 20 factories nationwide from late June to early August for government inspection. But despite a recent go-ahead, this week it was forced to issue another recall, for powdered skim milk. ---

LIZARD CHIPS: Japan's top snack food maker, Calbee, was forced to temporarily close one of its plants this month after a dead lizard was found inside a bag of garlic butter-flavored potato chips. Company president Masahiko Matsuo apologized and recalled 62,000 bags distributed in Tokyo and several nearby cities. ---

BUG IN A BUN: Yamazaki Baking Co., the nation's top baked- goods producer, recalled 700,000 cups of pudding in July after consumers complained of a sour taste and smell caused by excessive levels of lactic-acid bacteria and yeast. Yamazaki also recalled 17,000 moldy potato curry sandwiches. And Yamazaki was back in the headlines this week, when a quarter-inch-long bug was found in one of its custard cream buns. ---

SMELLY CHEESE: Hokkaido Hidaka Nyugyo voluntarily recalled 280,000 packs of mozzarella cheese from supermarkets nationwide after consumers complained of foul odor caused by excessive fermentation triggered by hot weather. No toxins or germs were found.

-- Rachel Gibson (rgibson@hotmail.com), August 30, 2000

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