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An Insider's View of the Japanese Meat Industry

Living in a country chronically lacking in food security, one that imports 60% of calories consumed within its borders and heavily subsidizes the domestically-produced remainder, it is nothing new for Japanese to be concerned about where their food is coming from. With 17% of their imported food coming from China, a country recently embroiled in a series of high-profile scandals involving exports tainted with various toxins, it is also not surprising that many Japanese tend to direct their fears at imports from their populous and rapidly-expanding East Asian neighbour [Ja].

The contrast between this anxiety about imported foods and the regard typically accorded to food produced in Hokkaido, Japan's resource-rich northernmost prefecture known for its assortment of culinary delights, could not be greater. There's a rumour that simply labeling a product with the word “Hokkaido” alone can double sales. Given this situation, the widespread shock expressed at the recent scandal over ground beef is understandable.

When it was revealed just about two weeks ago that the charmingly-named Meat Hope Company was selling pork disguised as beef, apparently because stocks of beef had run out, and was also suspected of disguising Brazilian chicken meat as domestic and shipping it for use in school lunch meals, public trust in their food was undermined again. In total, it was reported that, since last July, the company has sold 368 tons of falsely labeled meat products to 18 companies, with earlier cases dating as far back as 1983.

Hokkaido
Hokkaido, the bread basket of Japan – photo by Taro416

While there were various reactions to the news about Meat Hope [Ja] from bloggers in Japan, one stood out as particularly insightful. Blogger Here There and Everywhere, a worker at a meat processing plant in Japan, wrote last week about their first-hand experience in the industry:

私は食品会社に勤めているものです。連日のミートホープ社の偽装工作報道の件に関して私の会社での現実をお伝えしたく書き込みをさせて頂きます。連日の報道では「食の安全」と謳っていますが、食品会社の現状の体質からして真の「食の安全」は到底望めない事と感じております。恐らく会社サイドはこの騒動のほとぼりが冷めるのをただ待っているように思えてなりません。偽装は全国の食品会社では起こっている事だと思っております。決して全ての食品会社がそうとは限りませんが。

I work in a food company. I write this entry to transmit to you the reality of [what is happening in] my company, in response to the nonstop coverage of the Meat Hope Co. falsification and deception incident. In this daily coverage [of the Meat Hope incident], [the media has been] making statements about “food safety”, and yet I have the feeling that, speaking in terms of the actual condition of food companies, true “food safety” is not something that we can ever even possibly hope for. It's hard not to feel that this company is simply waiting for the commotion [about this scandal] to simmer down. I think this kind of food mislabeling and falsification is happening at food companies across the country. Of course, not every food company is like this, but…

私の勤めている会社では主に精肉を取り扱っています。会社内の工場には金属探知機が置いてあるのですが、これは本来精肉の中に包丁の刃の金属の粉が混入しているか否かを感知する為に設置してありますが、通常は金属探知機は一切使用しません。使用する時といえば取引先や得意先等といった外部からの査察や工場見学の際に探知機を使用している事を建前上見せる時にしか使用していないのが現状です。もし人体に影響を及ぼすことになれば取り返しのつかないことになります。

At the company I work for, we mainly handle processed meat. A metal detector has been put in place at the company's factory to detect whether any metal fragments from the knife blade have gotten mixed in during processing; this metal detector, however, is never used on a day-to-day basis. The reality is that the metal detector is only used to present a public facade for appearance's sake, for example when trading partners or clients visit for an inspection or company tour. If there was some kind of impact [from meat contamination] on the human body, there would be no way to undo it.

通常、精肉はしんたま、肩ロース等といった牛の各部分の原体からスライスしたものを商品としているのですが、その原体はミートセンターから食品会社へ送られる際に個体識別番号や賞味期限等が記されたラベルが貼られているのですが、これは本来商品の安全の為、出荷の際に正しい個体識別番号や賞味期限を表示したラベルを食品会社で発行してから出荷するのですが、実際は異なる個体識別番号や賞味期限を改ざんして出荷しているのが場合があります。時には原体を保存している冷凍庫から賞味期限が1年以上前に切れているものを精肉にして出荷している事も過去にあります。あと商品そのものの改ざんやあと原産地域の改ざんもあります。

Normally, meat from each part of the cow — sirloin, chuck, and so on — is sliced into products to be sold. At the time when the meat is sent from the meat centre to the food company, labels are attached indicating individual identification numbers, “best before” dates, etc. And this is the essential step in assuring the safety of the product: the issue of whether, when meat is shipped, the label which the food company produces, indicating the product's identification number, “best before” date, etc., correctly [matches the label attached at the meat centre]. The truth, however, is that there are cases in which meat with falsified identification numbers and/or best before dates is shipped. There have been instances in the past where meat which has overrun its expiry date by a year or more has been taken from the fridge and shipped. There are also cases of alteration of the product itself, as well as alteration of the [label indicating] where the product was produced.

この事から私が思うには「知らぬは消費者ばかりなり」です。この事に関して私は社内ではまだ低い地位なので、意見を出せる身分ではありません。ですから私はこの事実を一人でも多くの方に知って貰い、消費者の皆様が安心して食品が食べられるような状況になればと思い、この投稿を決意いたしました。最後に個体識別番号検索のリンクを貼って締め括りたいと思います。

Considering these incidents, I have to think: “The only people who don't know about this are the customers.” I have a fairly low position within my company, so I don't have the standing to voice my opinion on this issue. For this reason, I would like to let as many people as possible know about these facts, and hope that the situation will be improved so that all of you, who are consumers, can consume thses food products without any worry, and that's why decided to post this. Lastly, I conclude this post by attaching a link to a look-up of individual identification numbers.

The post concludes with a link to a look-up function to track individual identification numbers [Ja].

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