Japanese gov’t steps in to address food labeling scandal

News & Views - November 15th, 2013
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As the controversy involving the mislabeling of food at prestigious hotel restaurants and department stores in Japan broadens, the Japanese government is cooking up measures to tackle an issue that could threaten the country’s traditional cuisine.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga met with officials from relevant agencies to work out effective guidelines to ensure that food products and dishes are appropriately represented in menus at hotels, restaurants and department stores across Japan.

Suga warned that dishonest labeling of food “could fundamentally undermine consumer trust in food.”

“The government needs to take thorough steps,” he said.

Consumer Affairs Minister Masako Mori, who also attended the meeting, called for “swift action” to stop the false labeling problem from spreading any further and restore consumer confidence.

Government agencies will also conduct investigations into food sectors and release results by the end of November.

The Hankyu Hanshin hotel chain has apologized after revealing that some ingredients used in its dishes were not as high quality as their menus stated. It has reportedly served flying fish eggs as red salmon “caviar” and juice from cartons as freshly squeezed.

The scandal has spread to food sections in department stores and other food outlets.

Officials of Takashimaya department store admitted that menu items and food products sold at six outlets had been falsely labeled from as far back as almost a decade ago, reports The Asahi Shimbun.

The department store chain said its Japanese tiger prawn, kuruma ebi, were simply black tiger shrimp.

An internal investigation by Takashimaya officials also found that a total of 62 menu items at 10 restaurants and prepared food shops in its six outlets had fake labels. Total sales of those misrepresented labels reached more than 300 million yen ($3 million).

Tens of thousands of diners who paid for premium ingredients have been duped by the fraudulent menus.

One case involved a ryokan in the city of Nara which reportedly served restructured meat to customers as Japanese beef, causing allergic reactions to some guests.

“These incidents have surfaced one after the other, and this inappropriate labelling has resulted in the loss of trust among consumers,” Yoshihide Suga, the government’s top spokesman said. “These are clearly coverups.”

In addition to the mislabeling, the Hotel Okura chain—which boasts US President Barack Obama as one of its guests—was found to have been injecting beef with fat to make it juicier and incorrectly describing tomatoes as organic.

The Yomiuri Shimbun said it was “astonished by the lack of morals in these industries as a whole.”

Japanese traditional cuisine, or washoku, known for its artistic presentation and seasonal ingredients, will be recognized as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO.

But recent revelations couldn’t have come at a worse time and have left many customers doubtful about the food on their tables.

By Maesie Bertumen

Image of real kuruma-ebi: josewolff/Flickr