Tokyo reels from latest food scandal

February 5, 2002 Financial Times (London) by Michiyo Nakamoto
In the past few years the Japanese public has been subjected to a series of frightening product recalls and health scares that have shaken confidence in the high level of quality control that seemed to be a way of life in Japan.

The latest is a beef scandal that has shattered the public's faith in a once respected household brand and dashed consumer confidence in the safety of food.

Japanese police raided about 30 offices of Snow Brand Food over the weekend after the meat packaging company admitted that employees repackaged Australian beef and illegally labelled the packages as domestic meat to obtain government subsidies. The company carried out the deception to take advantage of a government policy to buy all domestic beef that was affected by a mad cow disease (BSE) scare last year. Snow Brand Food's share price plunged 20 per cent yesterday to a mere Y34, while its parent company, Snow Brand Milk, suffered a 14 per cent drop to Y114 (85 cents, 60p).

The political opposition has seized the opportunity and yesterday submitted a no-confidence motion against Tsutomu Takebe, agriculture minister, for his failure to stem the BSE scare that is at the root of the latest blow to public confidence.

Coming on the heels of the BSE scare, the revelations about Snow Brandhave brought home to an outraged public the decline in public standards and corporate ethics that has hit the country as it remains mired in the worst economic slump since the war.

"I am totally scandalised," says Takako Murata, a Tokyo housewife. "It makes you question the safety of meat and raises doubts as to whether Snow Brand actually sells reliable products. After this, what can consumers trust?" she asks.

Snow Brand's deception is seen as a result of poor controls and a blatant disregard for quality, not to mention ethics, that has affected the group and its approach to business.

Snow Brand Milk, the parent company, is still reeling from a milk poisoning scandal in the summer of 2000 that affected more than 10,000 people and shattered its reputation.

But critics say that it is also a symptom of a much wider problem that affects Japanese society as a whole and requires more fundamental solutions than the punishment and reform of a single corporate group.

Private investigations by the media have uncovered similar deceptions at other food processors and retailers, which have escaped the attention of the authorities.

Snow Brand's latest scandal also awakens memories of the disastrous nuclear accident at Tokaimura, where slipshod quality control led to the deaths of several workers.

A public debate has opened over who or what is to blame. In the case of the Snow Brand scandal, many point a finger at the culture of Japan's bureaucracy, which has tended to favour corporations over the individual.

The division of responsibilities between different ministries and rivalries has also led to a lack of co-operation that leaves regulation falling between many stools, says an official at a consumer issues research organisation. Three ministries and the Fair Trade Commission have responsibility for different aspects of food safety and labelling, he notes.

Lax punishment is another problem, critics say. "Corporations that are found to have sold faulty products or misled consumers, should be penalised much more heavily than they are under current Japanese law," says one outraged Tokyo resident.

Snow Brand's scandal may be the worst breach of consumer trust that the Japanese public has experienced in recent memory. But what the public fears is that, unless the country can put proper controls in place and clarify the rules of accountability, it is unlikely to be the last.

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