Japan’s new ‘horsemeat’ scandal
Renowned for its cuisine and with discerning consumers who put priority on food provenance, a high-profile food fraud scandal is unfolding in Japan. It has engulfed some of the country’s most prestigious hotels and department stores and threatens to undermine the international reputation of its vaunted fare. Since one luxury hotel chain admitted lying about the provenance of ingredients on its menus last month, Japanese media have served up almost daily revelations of similar transgressions by restaurants run by well-known hotels and department stores.
The frenzy began when the Hankyu Hanshin hotel chain, based in Osaka, admitted it had given false descriptions of dozens of menu items at some of its restaurants between 2006 and last month, affecting an estimated 78,000 diners. Among the chief misdemeanours was a red salmon “caviar” dish that turned out to be the less sumptuous eggs of the flying fish.
A televised attempt by the hotel group’s president, Hiroshi Desaki, to limit the damage by announcing a 20% pay cut for himself and 10% for other executives, failed to mollify angry consumers. Days later, Desaki resigned, conceding that the group had “betrayed our customers”, although he added: “We never had the intention to deceive them.” One of the hotel’s head chefs later declined a medal of honour he was due to receive from the government.
The company has so far refunded more than 10,000 people to the tune of 20m yen (£126,000); the eventual bill is expected to reach 110m yen.
Japan’s version of the horsemeat scandal has since spread to several household names in catering. While, as in Britain, no one has fallen ill from eating mislabelled produce, the outbreak of anger shows no sign of abating.
Consumers who believed they had eaten prized kuruma shrimps, for example, were told they had in fact dined on the much cheaper black tiger version.
The first incident, earlier this summer, went almost unnoticed. The Prince hotel in Tokyo was forced to come clean after a diner complained in a blogpost that a “scallop” dish he had ordered contained a similar, but cheaper, type of shellfish.
The hotel launched an investigation and went on to correct more than 50 menu items at dozens of its restaurants. Its report spooked Hankyu Hanshin and other hoteliers into admitting that they, too, had hoodwinked diners who believed they were paying high prices for premium ingredients.
The Hotel Okura chain – whose guests have included Barack Obama – confessed myriad sins, including injecting beef with fat to make it juicier and incorrectly describing tomatoes as organic. “We deeply apologise for betraying the expectations and confidence of our clients,” it said in a statement.
The list of fraudulent ingredients continues to grow: orange juice from cartons sold as freshly squeezed; mont blanc desserts topped with Korean chestnuts instead of the promised French ones; bought-in chocolate cream masquerading as homemade; imported beef sold as high-end wagyu.
Even the government’s top spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, was moved to comment. “These incidents have surfaced one after the other, and this inappropriate labelling has resulted in the loss of trust among consumers,” he said. “These are clearly coverups.”
The scandal has exploded at just the wrong time. Japan is trying to persuade South Korea and other countries to lift bans on food imports imposed in response to the Fukushima nuclear accident, while Unesco is considering a request to add Japanese cuisine to its intangible cultural heritage list…..
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