Japan starts probe into tainted frozen food

JAPAN - Police have begun investigations into whether pesticide could have been added deliberately to some frozen food products at a plant north of Tokyo.

Frozen food supplier Maruha Nichiro Holdings said late last month it was recalling nearly 6.4 million packages of frozen food manufactured at one of its plants after consumers complained of a strange smell coming from some products, and subsequent testing found traces of pesticide.

Police questioned some 300 employees of the plant in Oizumi city, in Gunma prefecture, which is operated by Maruha Nichiro through its Aqlifoods subsidiary.

Maruha Nichiro is Japan's largest seafood processing company, but also runs other food-related operations, including the manufacture of frozen food products.

It has been criticised for being slow to react to consumer complaints that began in November.

There were reports of consumers, including primary school children and adults, stricken by nausea induced by the smell or after eating frozen pizzas or cream croquettes made by the company.

They made a quick recovery.

There is no data on how many people might have been similarly stricken.

But according to Aqlifoods, there were no instances of serious damage to health.

Tests done on the recalled products found 21 packages with a strange odour so far.

These packages came from stores in 14 prefectures across the nation, including Tokyo and Osaka.

Samples taken from nine of those packages contained traces of malathion, commonly used as an insecticide.

A cream croquette was found to have the highest concentration, enough to make a 20kg child who eats less than a quarter of it sick, the company said.

Police suspect someone had deliberately tainted the products with the chemical, which is not normally used in the factory.

Although the company's products are made in different production lines in separate rooms, they are packed in the same room by about 80 employees working in two shifts.

It has announced that all operations at the Gunma plant have been suspended until the source of the contamination is determined.

As a public service, the Consumer Affairs Agency has posted on its website a list of the products withdrawn by Aqlifoods.

In addition to products marketed under the Maruha Nichiro brand, Aqlifoods also manufactures frozen food sold under the private brands of major supermarket chains such as Aeon and Seiyu.

Private brand products do not state where the food was made.

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