Groupthink behind Japan food scandal

Groupthink behind Japan food scandal
Japan's luxury Okura hotel chain executives bow their heads at a press conference in Tokyo to apologise after the hotel served meals made with ingredients falsely labelled as being of top-end quality.

A POPULAR Japanese saying goes like this: If everyone is in it together, such as crossing the road against a red light, there is no need to be afraid.

Such groupthink is behind the roiling food scandal in Japan that in recent weeks has exposed brand-name hotels and department stores, all of which have confessed to hoodwinking customers for years.

Though not on the scale of the European horse-meat scandal, the one consuming Japan's food industry - euphemistically called "mistaken labelling" - is arguably the greatest shock of the year.

The culinary skulduggery was initially thought to have been limited to just one Osaka-based hotel chain.

But within two weeks or so, the scandal had spread nationwide - more hotel operators owned up, including the Imperial and Okura, both of which are often used by visiting foreign leaders.

The scandal has even tarred the country's top department stores, Takashimaya, Isetan and Daimaru. The first two have stores in Singapore while Daimaru closed its Singapore outlet in 2003.

Except for one solitary case, the errant hotel-run restaurants and tenant eateries in department stores all maintain that they never set out to cheat.

Their only fault, they say, was in not being sufficiently aware of the need for accuracy in menu descriptions.

One common trick was to inject fat into cheap cuts of beef and pass them off as more expensive wagyu. Some patissiers thought nothing of using Chinese or Korean chestnuts even though the menu said "grown in Europe".

Minister Masako Mori, whose portfolio includes consumer affairs, has asked the department store associations and other food industry groups to submit reports of their efforts to prevent a repeat of the scandal.

The Consumer Affairs Agency is likely to beef up Japan's Food Labelling Act to make misleading menu descriptions an offence. Menus might have also to list ingredients that could be toxic to some people or trigger allergies.

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