Japan's bento street vendors face new regulatory challenges

Japan's bento street vendors face new regulatory challenges

Portable stalls that sell bento on the streets in business districts will see strengthened regulations on food hygiene control and other rules this autumn.

Under a revised Tokyo metropolitan government ordinance, permission will be required to sell bento on the streets using dollies and other human-powered vehicles. Bento street vendors will also be required to implement thorough temperature controls, among other obligations. Under such circumstances, the number of bento street vendors is expected to decline, which may affect how easily businesspeople can grab a bite to eat for lunch.

"I don't know how badly it will affect me once the ordinance is revised," said a 26-year-old vendor in mid-May. The vendor sells about 50 to 60 bento lunches a day, including Western-style bento, in the Nihonbashi business district of Tokyo. "But I have to accept it. I'm making a living with this work, so it's better than a prohibition on selling bento on the streets."

One vendor who has been selling bento for about two years said: "It takes a lot to carry heavy containers that would keep bento cold. If the revised ordinance takes effect, I may not continue selling bento on the streets."

In Nihonbashi, vendors sell a wide variety of bento, from popular Japanese-style washoku meals featuring karaage fried chicken or grilled fish to Chinese or Thai meals.

Tokyo's 23 wards experienced a rise in the number of portable stalls selling bento on the streets about 10 years ago, according to the Tokyo government.

A Tokyo government survey conducted in summer 2013 found that 260 bento street vendors operated in more than 10 locations in Tokyo, including Nihonbashi and Minato Ward's Shibaura and Konan districts. Among them, 158, or about 60 percent, did not use containers to keep bento cold while transporting them.

In a sampling survey, 35 out of 95 bento lunch boxes were found to contain bacteria exceeding Tokyo's food hygiene standards and were judged to be noncompliant products subject to special guidance.

Selling bento on the streets using dollies or carts is categorized as peddling, the same category as tofu selling, under the Tokyo ordinance regulating food manufacturers and others, and at present, anyone can do it after notifying public health centers. However, it is believed that many vendors have not notified anyone.

Under the revised ordinance that will take effect in October, selling bento and prepared foods will be categorized as a business that "sells bento and other things by using human-powered vehicles" and will require permission.

When selling bento, vendors will be required to have someone on duty in charge of food hygiene who has completed a course on preventing food poisoning. They will also have to display a written certificate that contains the name of the vendor and other information. Bento street vendors will also be required to use insulated sealed boxes, such as cold boxes, to transport bento to prevent the growth of bacteria, and place thermometers inside the boxes.

The new rules will impose a significant burden on bento street vendors as they will no longer be able to use ordinary, more convenient storage bins.

Concerning food hygiene qualifications, the Tokyo government's 2013 survey found that 203 of 260 vendors did not have someone on duty with such qualifications.

The course on the prevention of food poisoning takes one day, but people who attend the course are required to speak Japanese, a large hurdle for foreigners who have not stayed in Japan for a long time.

Under the revised ordinance, vendors will be temporarily closed down if their food hygiene management is inappropriate. People engaged in the business without permission will face strict punishment of imprisonment not exceeding six months or a fine not exceeding ¥300,000.

Some vendors say the number of bento street vendors will significantly decline due to the revision of the ordinance.

There have been 36 food poisoning cases caused by delivery box lunches in Tokyo during the period of 2008 to 2012, according to the Tokyo government.

While there has not been any reported cases of food poisoning caused by bento sold on the streets, if such bento causes food poisoning, it would be difficult to identify and track down the vendor who sold the bento in question under the current system.

"It would be too late after something happens," an official at the Tokyo government said. "While some vendors may give up selling bento on the streets, we need to improve the situation because there is a high risk of food poisoning at present."

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