Whistleblowers lift the lid on Japan's food industry

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The Independent Online

TV audiences in Japan couldn't get enough of the steam bun video. Shot secretly in China and screened repeatedly on Japanese networks, the footage showed a street vendor soak and mince corrugated cardboard, stuff it into dough and sell it as a pork-filled bun.

The trouble was that the video was faked and, as a string of recent food scandals prove, there are problems aplenty closer to home. These include pork sold as tuna and chicken; old battery hens packaged as free-range broilers, and sweets and dairy products being illegally recycled.

"It's like nothing is safe to eat any more," said housewife Naoko Shimoda, as she shopped for her family in a suburban Tokyo supermarket. "I was always wary of Chinese products but now I feel I can't trust anybody, especially after Akafuku."

A time-honoured confectioner, as revered here as Cadbury in the UK, Akafuku was investigated after a whistleblower said the firm scraped leftover bean paste from the bottom of old boxes and recycled it in fresh rice cakes. The government uncovered a record of deceit, including faking of production and expiry dates going back three decades. Akafuku has been forced to suspend production for the first time since the Second World War.

That scandal rivalled the shock of seeing one of the country's most famous mascots, peko-chan, disappear from outside 800 Fujiya cake shops around the country in January. The rosy-cheeked doll had been luring children into the shops for decades before Fujiya revealed it had been using old milk and eggs. The Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, was then forced to warn foodmakers to clean up their act. "After all, this concerns a maker of candy that our children eat," he said.

The warning has gone unheeded. The Meat Hope company went bust this summer after admitting it had packaged pork, chicken and rabbit as minced beef, including ground cattle hearts into the mix to make it look more convincing. The company had been supplying the meat to supermarkets and schools since the 1980s.

That revelation sparked a stream of tip-offs to the Agriculture Ministry, which oversees food safety. One revealed that the manufacturer of the highly popular "white lover" biscuit relabelled expired products and sent them back to the shops. The sight of food-company executives bowing in apology on the evening TV news has become an almost weekly ritual.

So far nobody has reported being poisoned, but the authorities are reeling from the backlash by angry consumers, who have long been told that their more expensive home-grown food is safer than imports. The government has declined to impose stricter punishments or heavier fines on offenders, believing a name-and-shame policy works best.