Japan mis-labelling scandal spreads to luxury food by Hiroshi Hiyama

TOKYO - Japan's hotels, restaurants and food shops were being warned Wednesday over dishonest labelling amid a growing scandal that is threatening to undermine the country's reputation for safe, high-quality produce.

The direction comes as top department stores became the latest Japanese firms to admit they had been selling food with labels falsely claiming high-quality or expensive ingredients. "It's extremely regrettable as it seriously undermines consumer confidence," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a regular press conference, speaking about the widening scandal.

"The Consumer Affairs Agency will take strict actions under the law (against misleading representations)," he said.

Suga, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's right-hand man, was speaking after luxury department store chain Takashimaya admitted that for years labels claiming the use of top-of-the-range prawns or freshly-squeezed orange juice sat on produce made with inferior ingredients.

For example, the department store used giant tiger prawns to make a "Japanese tiger prawn" terrine, sold under the luxury French brand Fauchon.

Japanese tiger prawn is widely considered a top shrimp and one that can command premium prices in this seafood-loving nation, while giant tiger prawns are more widely available.

The company insisted that the wide range of false labelling were honest mistakes, echoing excuses from a string of hotels that had long served meals claiming quality ingredients that were not part of the dish.

Whatever their excuses, "the fact remains they deceived consumers by making their products seem more luxurious than in reality," the Asahi Shimbun said in a front-page commentary, calling for tougher regulations.

A number of major hotel chains including Hankyu Hanshin Hotels, which operates the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Osaka among others, have admitted that their restaurants have long falsely labelled food on their menus.

The Ritz-Carlton Osaka has admitted that it also used cheaper prawns while the menu claimed the expensive species, among other falsehoods.

Tokyu Hotels, which operates 45 hotels, also admitted on Tuesday that 22 of its restaurants and seven banquet facilities have misleading food labels, largely involving shrimps and steak meat.

Hotel New Otani Kumamoto also said it too used cheaper shrimps and meat but claimed them as high-end.

A traditional ryokan-style hotel in the ancient capital of Nara also said it used Australian beef but labelled it as "wagyu", high-end Japanese beef, among other things.

Japanese food has built a worldwide reputation for quality and safety, with producers of luxury products able to charge premium prices at home and abroad.

Consumers in China have long preferred Japanese imports to locally produced fare, a preference that was reinforced following a series of adulteration scandals there, including one in which an industrial chemical was added to infant formula milk with fatal results.

But the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, which sent clouds of radiationover a swathe of Japanese farmland, dealt a blow to producers, who found their offerings shunned around the globe for fear they were tainted.