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, 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:
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…
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.
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.
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].