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