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Gyoza scare offers insight into Japan's culture of eating

23 Comments
By Andrew Cockburn

It all started in December, when a family in Chiba was rushed to the hospital with severe vomiting. After another local family was hospitalized with the same symptoms, authorities suspected that food poisoning was the cause. Watching the news at the beginning of this saga, it seemed as if the story would blow over pretty quickly. But within hours it was determined that frozen gyoza from China had been contaminated with a highly poisonous pesticide, and nearly four months later, Japan still seems obsessed with imported gyoza, especially here in Shikoku.

It’s come as a great surprise to me how much publicity this story has gotten. Even considering the fact that about 700 people fell ill and had to be hospitalized, the coverage seems to be completely out of proportion. Coming from Britain, the land of BSE in the beef, salmonella in the eggs, and God knows what in the lamb doner kebab, I grew up with the idea that eating pretty much anything tasty is a calculated risk. Is the 1-in-a-million chance of having your brain turned to jelly worth the pleasure of eating a rare steak? You bet! Is the 1-in-5 risk of ending up with an upset stomach after a trip to the kebab shop worth it? It certainly is, especially because that’s the only fuel strong enough to propel me all the way home at 2 a.m. on a Friday night. In fact, it gives me a perverse pleasure to eat a rare steak in the knowledge that I am laughing in the face of danger as I savor the succulent juices.

When I first got to Japan, I had the impression that the locals shared my laissez-faire attitude to food safety. Take, for instance, the awesomely dangerous fugu. Japan has a proud tradition of eating this poisonous blowfish, which, unless prepared by a trained master, can quickly result in paralysis and death. Stories of fugu-related fatalities crop up now and again in the news, usually — but not always — attributed to a clumsy amateur attempting to prepare the dangerous delicacy. Even when the perpetrator of the paralytic poisoning is an accomplished professional, rarely does fugu consumption dip below its usual levels. The fatal bite potentially lurking on the edge of this dish is, perhaps, just as tempting as the fish’s delicate flavor.

This is why it came as a shock to hear from a colleague that, a month or so after the gyoza incident, health officials began touring schools to warn the children that Chinese produce is dangerous and they should make sure their parents weren’t buying food from China. Gyoza were taken off the kids’ menus — which was even more surprising considering that all school lunches here are required to be made from Japanese produce. It would seem, then, that mercury-laced dolphin meat is fine in Wakayama elementary schools, because the dolphins were caught fair and square in Japan, but Japanese-made dumplings are not OK because some Chinese-made gyoza were contaminated.

Back in the UK, a large supermarket chain, Asda, and a large frozen foods producer, Bird’s Eye, recently recalled several batches of frozen meals after they were found to contain pieces of glass. This barely caused a ripple in the British media. When the gyoza story first broke, I expected much the same: the store would recall the product, apologize to the customers who became ill, and maybe offer some compensation. The company would probably change their Chinese supplier, and get on with business as usual.

Instead, what I’ve learned is that the carefree attitude towards food safety that I enjoy is not shared by the Japanese. People here want to eat delicious fugu safely, so their chefs train for years to master the art of preparing it. If Japanese people truly enjoyed fugu for the element of danger it presented, then we’d probably see more people doing other mildly dangerous activities, such as jaywalking. As it is, the safety which Japan is famous for has, from the eyes of this British observer, gone over the top, and this will lead to people buying domestic produce at much higher prices due to fear of Chinese food.

Surprisingly, when I went to eat lunch at a Chinese restaurant yesterday, I was joined by one of my Japanese co-workers. As we discussed the gyoza incident on our way out of the office, he remarked that “Food from China is terrible!” It was obvious that he didn’t link the Chinese restaurant we’d be dining at with the gyoza scandal at the supermarket. In that case, maybe there’s hope for the humble gyoza yet.

This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

© Japan Today

©2021 GPlusMedia Inc.

23 Comments
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I think the key word here is "China".

If the gyoza producer had been Japanese, the response probably would have been similar to the one the author experienced with the frozen meals in the UK.

Just MHO.

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I agree ! This is more about racist attitudes and a negative media campaign against China ! Gyoza just seemed to be the conduit ! Very embarrasing for Japan as a whole I believe.

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I hardly saw a backlash when chemicals were found in the drink Healthia, or nails were found in some other Jp product. Somebody had obviously spiked the gyoza. It wasn't as if all Chinese products had poison. Continue seeing all kinds of other 国産 stuff appear in the news. Frankly, I'd like to see Japanese products use less chemical fertilizers, insectides and other chemicals (including MSG). If people want to pay more than double the price for domestic produce, then that's their right, but Japan cannot produce enough to feed everyone here.

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I do think that the some is mistaken wrong. Comparing gyoza to BSE in U.K, is acceptable but, saying that BSE had far less media coverage is forgetting how embarrassing this issue was for U.K and how much coverage it had worldwide, gyoza issue lacks form international coverage. Maybe the boycott to British beef lunched by E.C. and so many other countries in the world was a question of racism too.

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MODERATOR: This story needs to be changed.

Andrew Cockburn writes:

It’s come as a great surprise to me how much publicity this story has gotten. Even considering the fact that about 700 people fell ill and had to be hospitalized, the coverage seems to be completely out of proportion.

This is completely untrue. Only 10 people were confirmed to have suffered poisoning due to ingesting chemical substances in and/or on the frozen gyoza. If Mr. Cockburn has verifiable evidence to the contrary, he should produce it, or change his claim in this story. It goes without saying in a country of 127 million people that some people suffer various types of digestive ailments on a daily basis. But, according to every story I`ve read, only 10 were sickened by the Chinese gyoza.

http://www.japannewsreview.com/society/national/20080215page_id=3946

This link says only 10 people, and there were many stories on the old JT-since expired-that said only 10 people as well.

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Speaking of eating...Maybe it's time to have the Japanese Government legislate table manners.

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Author missed the point, Japan loves to play the sympathetic victim, when it has found that Japanese companies where using overseas beef and labeling as Japanese beef those companies just got a slap on the wrist and a running through the media for 1 week after they bowed on TV and said we are sorry. You wont see them out of business or governments telling the public not to buy their products. But when a foreign company comes into play it's a different story.

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pathat: you're completely right! only 10 people in a country of 127M people. I'd like to know how many people gets sick from eating raw (Japanese) eggs in Japan per week. The 'gyoza case' has two features which surprise me: 1) different brands were poisoned with the same substance? what's the use of such a substance in the production process? 2) only a few packs were contaminated? how is it possible? if the poisoning is caused by a wrong manufacturing process, a whole product line should be contaminated, not just a few cases scattered all over the country. Does anybody remember what happened last year with the Schindler elevator? ALL purchases were canceled for only ONE accident. Could anybody guess what would happen if a whole country would cancel the purchases of, let say, Toyota cars because a guy in who-knows-where had an accident and died? The thing is that now, I have no option but buying extremely expensive Japanese vegetables without any alternative, whereas before the gyoza cases I could at least buy frozen Chinese ones in a far bigger bag!

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The British press is always kicking up a fuss about impositions on its food standards from the EU. From long-running red-mast stories about bendy bananas to standardised cucumbers, the British press is equally as xenophobic and backward as the Japanese press, but in a different way.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Well, reading the above comments I can only say that ignorance is indeed a bless. Let's have a look...

"I think the key word here is "China"."

Your point being? The key word is indeed China, as in "only China would be able to have this kind of things happening AND pretending they have nothing to do with it". China indeed.

"If the gyoza producer had been Japanese, the response ..."

You mean that you did NOT notice several food scandals in the news lately that were about Japanese companies?

"This is more about racist attitudes and a negative media campaign against China !"

A campaing that seems to be raging all around the globe. If half of the planet is taking part in this campaign it must mean that there is at least some truth in it.

"Somebody had obviously spiked the gyoza."

Yes. That is the only logical explanation, and it must have happened in China in the place where they were made. But of course some here prefered the conspiracy theories about nationwide organisations of right wingers entering ports all over the country to pick out products made by the same company on practically the same day, inserting the poison and then sealing the package again. Yes... that seems VERY likely... NOT!

The talk about "only 10 victims" is complete nonsense as 1. there were more, 2. we are not talking about an accidental food poisoning but about something that is very likely to have been done on purpose.

"just got a slap on the wrist and a running through the media for 1 week after they bowed on TV and said we are sorry."

Well, maybe the Chinese should have also bowed and said they were sorry? But no, they were not even able to bring themselves to give a decent apology.

"Japan loves to play the sympathetic victim"

If there is ONE country that loves to play the victim now, it must be China. Producing low quality products and calling racism when someone complains?? Invading Tibet yet crying when someone here visits a shrine??

0 ( +0 / -0 )

sarcasm: Do you have evidence to back up this claim?

The talk about "only 10 victims" is complete nonsense as 1. there were more,

Maybe there were, but you need to prove it. If you cant, then youre the one talking nonsense.

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"ven considering the fact that about 700 people fell ill and had to be hospitalized"

700>10.

Back to you.

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sarcasm123 - that's the point, the writer here pulled the 700 number out of the air - his timeline is all mucked up too, as the other "local" family was in Hyogo, not Chiba.

Here's health officials backtracking from over 2,000 to 10:

http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/nn20080215a1.html

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""We took a particularly detailed look at cases in which patients were hospitalized and have concluded that no one else other than the 10 people suffered from organophosphate poisoning"

They looked at cases where patients were hospitalized only.

Still, even if it was only 5 cases, or 3, or 2: we are not talking about an accidental food poisoning but about something that is very likely to have been done on purpose.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

WhatJapanThinks: Thanks for taking the time to provide the info/link.

Sarcasm just regurgitated a line from Cockburn`s story above. Very impressive, sarcasm123!

I have yet to see a story which said there was conclusive proof of more than 10 people being sickened by chemical substances in and/or on the gyoza.

If you have proof, sarcasm, show us how we are wrong. If not, admit you`re wrong, and step aside.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

This is yet another example of conveniently labeling Japanese as "racist," and "xenophobes" because of the perceptions of a perfectly natural response to contaminants that may have come from abroad. Look at the lead case in many products from China. Japan isn't the only one that's been highlighting tainted products from overseas. Where I live it was huge news and constant news of the next product found to have lead contamination from toys. And the pet food scandal? In those cases, it's perfectly natural to be wary of, and refuse to purchase, products from China or other country. In those cases it's called preservation of heatlh and a perfectly rational response. Yet when it happens in Japan it's racist and wrong. Can anyone else out there please explain the double standard here?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

"If you have proof, sarcasm, show us how we are wrong. If not, admit you`re wrong, and step aside."

I will, pathat, the day when you show me proof that not a single person of the 2800 persons who complained about feeling sick after eating frozen food from China was indeed actually affected by some pesticide, apart from the 10 you mention.

As my proof, I will just say this: google a bit around and find the hundreds of cases all around the world about people suffering from bad quality of Chinese products. Then come back here and label Japan as racist. Along with the US, all countries in the EU, and a few dozen other developed countries.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Sarcasm:

As my proof, I will just say this: google a bit around and find the hundreds of cases all around the world about people suffering from bad quality of Chinese products. Then come back here and label Japan as racist. Along with the US, all countries in the EU, and a few dozen other developed countries.

Irrelevant And Irrational, Sarcasm123.

You really are amusing, sarcasm. I`m not doubting the "bad quality" of some Chinese products, including the produce under discussion on this thread. But you have no proof of your previous assertions, so you resort to hysterical claims of racism and other nonsense.

Whats for dinner? I think Ill try some delicious gyoza! Good day to you, sarcasm123.

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Who is amusing, pathat? A man claiming that none of the 2800 people who complained about feeling sick were really affected by pesticides?

You say only 10 have been found affected by the pesticide. How many others were actually tested in detail? You say the other 2790 were tested and found to be negative (as you claim none of them were affected by the pesticide, it implies you think they all were tested). I say that is nonsense.

Were some of the remaining 2800 people not affected by pesticides? I am 100% sure of it. Were half of them not affected? Quite likely. Were 75% of them not affected? Possible. 90%? Unlikely but still possible. Let's assume 95% of them were indeed not affected. That still leaves us with 5% of 2800, or 140 people. 99%? Still leaves us 28 real cases.

But no. Pathat has decided all 2800 cases were negatives. His proof?

Who is amusing?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

It is indeed 10 and it is indeed because it is from China and because this is in Japan.

All the other Japanese food scandals never got so far to ban the whole sector let alone products by a country because of one incident.

The funny yet sad truth is food here are so full of artificial dyes, preservatives and all sorts of potential chemicals that it is a wonder that the average Japanese considers themselves mindful of food safety at all.

For instance, almost all yogurt, for adults or kids, are packed with preservatives. Even getting an icecream bar without preservatives is difficult. Other than a well-known foreign brand, I have so far found exactly one kind once.

Where was the alarm when it became clear lots of deep sea fish are packed with heavy metals such as mercury? That it may be too dangerous to eat certain sushi even more than a few pieces a week? (and that's for adult) Oh only the pregnant need to know. Whale meat (higher mercury concentration) can stay on the school lunch menu.

For those who argue it is not about Japan's attitude toward China, good luck with your kids and his/her lunch, with or without the Chinese gyoza. The American press, after creating headline news, will at least tell you the truth somewhere, i.e., schools aren't more dangerous even if high-profile incidents make people feel so. Chinese products are returned or flawed at higher rate than products from other nations even if the headlines seem differ. Just like who needs to be fingerprinted at the border, the Japanese attitude is never in doubt.

And I don't think anyone touched dioxin (formed by burning chlorine-based chemical compounds with hydrocarbons) and put that into the context for health yet.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

sorry.

It should be 'Chinese products are returned or flawed at NO higher rate than products from other nations even if the headlines seem differ.'

0 ( +0 / -0 )

'Ban' is the wrong word. There is no need for an explicit ban. Just as they don't need to make special laws to make women quit jobs after the wedding or 'Yasukuni' off screen mostly.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Boy oh boy... where to start...

"All the other Japanese food scandals never got so far to ban the whole sector let alone products by a country because of one incident."

And when did Japan ban the entire gyoza sector again? Please remind us.

"The funny yet sad truth is food here are so full of artificial dyes, preservatives and all sorts of potential chemicals that it is a wonder that the average Japanese considers themselves mindful of food safety at all."

It is funny and sad that you seem to think that is something that is limited to "here". Have you ever checked the "ingredients" list of yogurt in other developed countries? Do you think some yogurt looks red because it contains strawberries?? Why does the meat you buy not oxidize within a few hours?? Come on, tell us!

"Where was the alarm when it became clear lots of deep sea fish are packed with heavy metals such as mercury?"

Too funny!! I will give you some reason: because it was not injected in it on purpose!! Because there is no alternative. We cannot stop eating fish completely. We can, however, stop eating gyoza made by a certain company.

"The American press..."

Is that the American press as in, from the country that introduced the "China free" labels? Why did they do such a thing?

"And I don't think anyone touched dioxin (formed by burning chlorine-based chemical compounds with hydrocarbons) and put that into the context for health yet."

Dioxins are a problem all over the world. I have no idea whey you bring it up here.

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