How fresh is the food you buy? It’s common enough to see “Super Sale” and “Special Discount” products at supermarkets, but how much do shoppers know about the quality of the food they buy?
“Consumer awareness of food safety has risen since the chain of food-related incidents such as the contaminated gyoza dumplings from China, left-over food served by the restaurant Senba Kiccho and deceptive labeling of origin of eels. But there is a major problem that many overlook … the fact that local supermarkets are also involved in various kinds of falsifications," says Hirokazu Kawagishi.
Kawagishi has been in the food industry for 25 years and currently works for a leading distributive firm, specializing in quality and hygiene management. He conducted his own investigation of over 500 supermarkets throughout Japan and will publish his book “Supa no Uragawa" (The Seamy Side of Supermarkets) this month.
Kawagishi emphasizes the importance of supermarkets in view of the economic downturn and consumers’ efforts to save money by eating home-cooked meals. He states that supermarkets shouldn’t deceive its customers, yet his investigation conveys a reality far worse than imagined.
For example, mackerel advertised as "caught in the morning" could actually be the morning of the day before, or even worse, 2 to 3 days ago. Kawagishi says some supermarkets have absolutely no qualms, since the fish was indeed "caught in the morning."
Inspection of a store’s sanitary condition is also a part of this food specialist’s job. “There’s something definitely wrong if you find any pieces of instant noodle or rice on the floor of the aisle where these products are sold. Scratches or Y-shaped marks and dark scuffmarks on the shelves or nearby columns – these may indicate rat infestation.”
The lax temperature regulation of food usually involves milk and eggs. Kawagishi points to the way milk cartons may be stacked up in supermarket refrigerators. Since the temperature is lowest at the bottom of the refrigerator, the cartons at the top of the stack are hardly chilled. Temperature control is fundamental in the management of food products, yet in contrast to the U.S., Mexico and Asian countries Kawagishi has visited, only in Japan are eggs sold at room temperature – neglecting the danger of salmonella poisoning.
Price tags may say that the tomatoes are from Aichi but placed in boxes marked "Tsukuba Japan Agricultural Cooperative." While this may be a simple mistake, it is actually a breach of JAS [Japan Agricultural Standards] regulations.
Only a food professional like Kawagishi can easily tell if "fresh" meat or vegetables are recycled products. Meat left over from the day may be repackaged to show the "fresher" looking side, while labels are swapped to change the processing date to the next day. Various kinds of fruit may be cut and sliced to remove the spoiled parts and sold in a container as "fruit salad." Such examples of falsification and consumer deception seem endless.
According to the inspection division of one municipal health center, the current Food Sanitation Law does not require labeling of the processing date for fresh meat, although altering the expiration date would be considered a violation. Health centers may "instruct" food retail stores on matters such as keeping milk refrigerated at less than 10 degrees C or regular pest control, but will not conduct any store inspection unless some kind of damage is reported – by consumers.
In other words, food management is left up to the individual supermarket. As Kawagishi comments, “Of course, there are many stores that manage their products properly, but it is also true that many others make light of consumer awareness. Rather than waiting for the government to take action, it is more important for consumers to learn to scrutinize products.”© Japan Today