The sterling reputation of Japan's food industry has been tarnished in recent months by one scandal after another. Aaron Priel explains.

"Four cases of mad cow disease, most recently in mid-May in Japan's farming heartland; Brazilian chicken labelled as Japanese; Vietnamese salt labelled as Japanese; mixed rice labelled as single-variety, and US beef sold as Japanese…" These are just some of the recent food scandals suffered by the Japanese food industry, notes a report by The New York Times.

The report says that national concern about food quality has risen sharply as a result, with newspapers and consumers starting to demand an overhaul of the system that is said to guarantee pure food, "a matter of national pride." One major recent case in which beef was mislabelled to earn government subsidies pushed one of Japan's most reliable household standbys, the Snow Brand Food Company, into bankruptcy, and led to the arrest of seven former officers.

Snow Brand Milk Products Co., established in 1925 - which owns Snow Brand Food - "is flirting with bankruptcy." Two years ago, thousands of people reported having suffered food poisoning after it was disclosed that the company had distributed spoiled milk.

Brands need 'the trust of the people'

"Food is something you put into your mouth - a brand becomes popular if it has the trust of the people." Joji Tsugai, Snow Brand's regional consumer complaints director, was quoted in the report, adding: "We lost the trust in our brand."

Although the Japanese pride themselves as heirs to inborn knowledge about such foods as rice and fish, most cases of food labelling have been uncovered by government inspectors: a year-long government survey of 113,581 rice retailers concluded in May that 15% had been selling mislabelled rice; the Marubeni Chikusan Corporation had sold Brazilian chicken as Japanese for 20 years.

A sailor's union survey of fish shops last November found that only 10% of packages of sliced raw tuna were correctly labelled. "For decades, Japanese have accepted paying high prices for domestically produced food on the theory that it was purer than imported food. Now, some city dwellers complain they are paying sky-high prices simply to subsidise inefficient farms."

With Japan's government dependent on votes from rural districts across this island, Hokkaido, the government does not dream of opening floodgates to food imports. Last June, Agriculture Ministry officials openly ridiculed a European Union report warning that Japan was a prime candidate for mad cow disease. Three months later, on Sept. 10, Asia's first case was discovered, on a farm near Tokyo. The government now estimates that the mad cow outbreak has cost farmers, meat packers, supermarkets and restaurants US$2bn over the last eight months.

WHO urged ban on byproducts in feed

All four cases of mad cow disease, three in Hokkaido, were traced back to a milk-substitute feed given to the cows when they were calves in the spring of 1996. The blended feed, the report says, "contained an animal fat from the Netherlands, which has had 21 cases of mad cow disease since 1997. In 1996, the World Health Organisation urged Japan and other countries to ban the use of such cow by-products as feed, but Japan made the ban voluntary. Since last October, Japan has checked all cattle taken to slaughter for mad cow disease. But about 40% of Japan's 168 slaughterhouses now refuse to accept older cattle for fear of contamination.

Last autumn, after the mad cow outbreak, slaughterhouses and meat companies sought to unload frozen meat stocks in the face of plummeting consumer demand. The government finally announced, as the report notes, "that it would buy up the beef from cows slaughtered in the month after the first case of mad cow disease." In May 2002, a government audit found that about half of the frozen beef purchased under the programme was either Japanese beef stored in warehouses prior to the mad cow outbreak, or low-cost beef imported from Australia and the United States, countries without mad cow disease. With Japan the largest destination for American beef exports, the American industry has begun an US$8-million advertising campaign to reassure the Japanese about the safety of American beef.

By Aaron Priel, just-food.com correspondent