Japan scandal hits McDonald's

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McDonald's has been caught up in the Japanese meat-packing scandal. The burger chain is one of the biggest clients of Starzen, which has now admitted a history of mixing cheap meats with more expen- sive ones, and selling the product at premium prices.

Experts in the Japanese food industry believe it is "highly likely" that McDonald's was the unwitting recipient of deceitfully labelled products, which is the latest stage in a scandal rife with lies, denials and health scares.

Tokyo analysts now warn that the problem could worsen in the next few weeks as other food firms admit to persistent malpractice.

On its own, the Starzen scandal would be bad enough, but the meat-buying Japanese public is already at a fever pitch of fear and disgust with its government and the largest food producers. Just last month, Snow Brands Food caused outrage as it emerged that it had been labelling domestic product as Australian beef in an effort to gain government subsidies. Those subsidies were themselves a result of colossal political mismanagement of Japan's BSE crisis, when overnight consumers boycotted domestic beef en masse.

The beef scandal has now forced Snow Brand into liquidation, but its name had already plummeted in the public's mind. Earlier in 2001, its dairy division admitted responsibility for a food-poisoning outbreak that affected tens of thousands of people. After Starzen's forced admission last week, a credit rating cut by Moody's and the removal of its products from the shelves of Ja- pan's biggest supermarkets, Star- zen shares plunged to record lows.

The scandal has highlighted the global uncertainty that still hangs over beef products and that has prompted McDonald's, the world's largest seller of beef, to make big changes to its menus that favour other meats. Its interest in developing pork products has brought it together with Sygen, a small Oxfordshire biotech company which uses DNA technology in an effort to breed the "Perfect Pig". This would be an animal with immunity from certain diseases, and the ideal flavour when cooked.