FOOD SAFETY IN JAPAN: MISLABELED SWEETS, THE GYOZA SCARE AND DEADLY RAW BEEF

FOOD SAFETY IN JAPAN

In the early 2000s, there was a rash of reports about foreign objects in food: rubber pieces in cheese, a metal bolt on a can of meat sauce, a lizard in a bag of potato chips, a dead gecko in a can of corn, a fly in some fish flacks and piece of vinyl in a can of sardines. Over 600,000 cans of tomato juice were pulled off the shelves after a fly was found in one can. In 2007, Coca-Cola recalled 134,000 bottles of soft drinks in Japan after a piece of rubber was found inside a two-liter bottle of Aquarius sports drink.

There have been a number of examples of of foreign beef being passed off as Japanese beef. There have also been minor scandals involving Brazilian chickens labeled as Japanese; Vietnamese salt labeled as Japanese; and mixed rice being labeled as a single-variety. There have been a number of examples of of foreign beef being passed off as Japanese beef.

Good Websites and Sources: Government Information Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare ; U.S. Government Report on Food Safety Inspection in Japan pdf file fsis.usda.gov ; Food Safety in Modern Japan pdf file dijtokyo.org/doc/dij-jb_12

Links in this Website: DIET AND EATING HABITS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ;JAPANESE FOODS AND DISHES Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; FOOD SAFETY IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; RICE AND NOODLES IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; SOYBEANS, SOY SAUCE, NATTO, MISO AND TOFU IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE VEGETABLES, FRUITS AND MUSHROOMS Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE BEEF, MEAT AND DAIRY PRODUCTS Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; SEAFOOD IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; SUSHI Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; FUGU (BLOWFISH) IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; RESTAURANTS AND FAST FOOD IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan

Contaminated Milk in Japan

In 1955, more than 12,000 babies were given arsenic-laced powdered milk produced by the Morinaga Milk Industry. Thousands of babies were taken to hospitals with fever, diarrhea and blackened skin. A number of deaths and health problems occurred. A study found strangely enough that people who consumed the milk but didn’t die were more likely to die in traffic accidents later in life.

In June and July 2000, more than 14,500 people fell ill after drinking milk produced by the Snow Brand Foods. An investigation uncovered that a power failure that knocked out refrigeration unit allowed bacteria to grow in the raw milk. Snow Brand Foods was also involved in a meat label scandal (foreign produced meat was labeled as Japanese meat, which gets government subsidies). The company was forced to close down. Several executives were found guilty of negligence given suspended jail sentences.

Mad Cow Disease in Japan

On October 18, 2001, the government announced that a dairy cow had been discovered mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, BSE). It was the first time the disease was discovered in Japan. A second case was announced in November 2001. Ultimately four cows were found with the disease after a million cows were tested.

The outbreak of mad cow disease caused beef consumption to decline by 30 percent to 70 percent in the month after the initial outbreak. Foot dragging and indecisiveness by the government didn't help matters.

Because of worries about contamination, slaughter houses refused to take older cattle and because of that some cattle were simply abandoned and picked up wandering on the sides of roads. In the end, The government bought and burned cattle suspected of having contacted the disease. Domestic beef was also incinerated and beef producers were given subsidies. An investigation of subsidized meat found that much of it was foreign.

Three of the four cases of disease were traced to a milk-substitute feed eaten by the four cows when they were caves in 1996. The feed contained animal fat from the Netherlands, where there were 21 cases mad cow disease in 1997. Instead of banning the suspected feed outright after the mad cow outbreak in 1996, the government only issues guidelines and made them voluntary. Some farmers ignored them and imported the feed.

As of December 2005, 21 cases of BSE has been reported in Japan.

Ban of American Beef in Japan

A ban on the import of American beef was imposed in December 2003 after the first case BSE was found there. Japan wanted the United States to check all beef coming into the United States for BSE, an effort that could cost the United States as much as $1.75 million a year. Beagles were introduced at Narita airport outside Tokyo to sniff out banned meat products.

The ban caused some hardships. The food chan Yoshinoya was forced to discontinue its popular beef and rice gyudon bowl, which sold for only ¥280 a bowl and was a fixture of salarymen lunches. Beef prices had risen so high that the chain could no longer afford to offer such a cheap dish. Customers and chain employees wept when the last bowls were served up. Yoshinoya was hit hard by the changes. The ¥280 gyudo bowl accounted for 90 percent of chain’s sales and 99 percent of their beef came from the United States.

The United States responded by banning Kobe beef. The United States only imports $800,000 worth of it a year and U.S. rancher now produce their own “Kobe-style” beef with wagyu cows.

Japan lifted the ban on U.S. beef in December 2005 on the condition that meat came from animals 20 months or younger and that risky parts like spinal chords that can spread the disease be removed before shipments. Japan resumed beef imports from the United States in January 2006 only to quickly reintroduce the ban after banned spinal chord parts were found in a shipment from the United States. The ban was lifted again in July 2006

In ways by then the damage had been done. In a survey in August 2006, 80 percent of the Japanese interviewed said they were wary about eating American beef.

The gyudon (beef bowl) returned to the menu at Yoshinoya in September 2006 for the first time since February 2004.

Food Scandals in 2007 and 2008 in Japan

There were several food-mislabeling scandals in Japan in 2007. Some of the food mislabeling was revealed by whistleblowers who worked at the companies that were involved.

In June 2007, Hokkaido-based Meat Hope company admitted it had mixed pork, duck, rabbit, chicken and other meat with meat labeled as 100percent ground beef. The company---which had done other things like add cattle hearts to pork to improve the color, put bread rolls into ground beef to bulk it up and labeled mutton jerky as venison jerky---collapsed and its president was sentenced to four years in prison for selling meat that he knew was mislabeled.

Meat Hope later admitted that it had falsely mislabeled nearly all of its products, including ordinary beef passed off as high grade beef, and osld products that were past their expiration date. All workers lost their jobs.

An estimated 15 million bento box meals with falsified “best before” labels was shipped out by Japan Railroad over a three year period, the meals were supposed to be sold 14 hours after production, The maximum gap between the real time of expiration and the falsified time was 6 hours and 40 minutes, there were no reports of illness connected to the mislabeling.

Even McDonald’s admitted to falsifying dates on it salads and selling salads that were past their “use-by” dates for six years.

In November 2008, traces of a chemical used in insect repellant and air freshener were found in 26 containers of instant noodles. The discovery was made after a woman got sick from eating Nissin instant noodles.

Mislabeled Sweets in Japan

Akafuka, a 300-year-old confectioner based in Ise, Mie Prefecture, sold “mochi” sweets with fake expiration dates and mislabeled products in other ways. The company’s flagship product Akafuju Mochi, a gummy rice cake with sweet bean jam, which the company began selling in 1707 and is traditional souvenir bought by people visiting Ise shrine, was frozen and stockpiled and sold later despite advertising claims that it was shipped the same day it was made.

Up to 90 percent of unsold products were reused rather than thrown out. Inspectors were alerted to the problem by a tip showed up in force at the Akafuka headquarters and searched through doucments for an entire day. The president of the company at first denied the charges but was forced to admit the truth a couple days later. The scandal was particularly scandalous because of the company’s 300-year history and its association with Ise, the sun goddess Amaterasu and the Japanese emperor.

Another confectioner, Sapporo-based Ishiya admitted shipping its famous “shiroi Kolbito” (“white beloved ones”) chocolate cookies relabeled with a”best-before dates” that were one or two months later than they should have been. Before the scandal “shiroi Kolbito” cookies were one of Japan’s favorite souvenir items, selling 200 million units a year. After the scandal the president of the company was forced to resign and the company was forced to cease operations.

In January 2007 major confectioner Fujiya announced it had sold cream puffs make with milk that was past its “use by” date. Fujiya is a famous company whose mascot Peko-chan---a liitle girl with pigtails---is as recognizable in Japan as Ronald McDonald in the United States. The revelation about the cream puffs appears to have been made by was a whistle blower within the company.

Fujiya shipping about mislabeled 14,600 cream puffs after expending their expiration date. Investigation revealed that the products contained 10 times the amount of bacteria permitted by law. The sweets were shipped from an Osaka plant but appear to have been done with the knowledge of headquarters in Tokyo. Sales for the company’s products plummeted; production facilities were shut down; the company’s president resigned. Fujiya posted huge losses in 2007 and 2008.

Food Imports in Japan

Japan imports two thirds of its frozen food from China, In 2006 it imported ¥74.1 billion worth of processed chicken products; ¥54.3 billion worth of frozen vegetable products; ¥52.7 billion worth of grilled eel; ¥44.6 billion worth of fresh vegetables, including cabbage, potatoes, ginger and leeks.

Safety fears raised by problems with certain food imported from China have affected all food imported from China. Vegetable imports plummeted 40 percent after the food scares mentioned below. The decline was due to fears about Chinese-produced foods and delays caused by increased inspections of exports in China. Some stores and restaurant hang green lanterns which signify they only carry foods made from domestic ingredients.

One survey in 2008, found that 89.1 percent of Japanese prefer domestically-produced food,

Gyoza Scare in Japan

In December 2008 and January 2008, 10 people in three families in two areas---Chiba and Hyogo prefectures---became seriously ill after eaten gyoza frozen dumplings produced in China that were contaminated with the pesticide methaminophus, a highly toxic organic phosphate pesticide. One of the victims---a five-year-old girl went into a coma.

The 10 people that were sickened were a mother and daughter in Chiba city who ate the gyoza in late December; five members of a family in Ichikawa in Chiba Prefecture who consumed the gyoza in January; and three members of a family in Takasago, Hyogo Prefecture, including the five-year-old girl, who ate their gyoza in January. The quantity of methaminophus in the Hyogo gyoza was 44,000 times what was considered safe.

One of the Chiba city victims said she became dizzy, felt nauseous and had diarrhea about 20 minutes after eating the gyoza. Her husband called an ambulance. By the time she arrived at the hospital she was numb with cold and her temperature dropped to 34 degrees C. For two days she was unable to move and was unable to eat for longer than that. Her husband said he “felt her life was in danger.”

The five-year-old girl who went into the coma and the other four members of her family were all hospitalized after eating tainted gyoza. The girl was unconscious for three days and suffered cramps in her face and hands, was constantly salivating and had tears streaming from her eyes. At one point her temperature topped 40 degrees C. She was on a respirator for over a weeks and was hospitalized for almost a month. She suffered more than other family members because she ate more gyoza to her body weight than other members of her family.

During the gyoza scare 2,745 people called health officials complaining of problems and 884 people sought the help of doctors but these people either suffered from a kind of hysteria or mistakenly attributed symptoms from some other ailment to food poisoning. Investigations also revealed the presence of another pesticide, Dichkorvus, widely used in China to kill mosquitos and other insect pests and sometimes use to give bootleg liquor a “punchy flavor.” There were no reports of problems related to Dichkorvus.

Gyoza Scare Investigation

The dumplings in question---Tezukuri Gyoza (handmade gyoza dumplings) and Tezukusamui Hitokuchi (handmade bite-size gyoza dumplings)---were produced by Tianyang Food in Hebei Province in China during early October 2007 and sold by JT Foods at Coop grocery stores in November in Hyogo and Chiba prefectures in Japan. Chinese officials said that the “no problems were detected at gyoza factory” and said it passed 24 quality checks since February 2007.

A lot questions were raised about where the poisoning took place. Japanese investigators insisted that the evidence indicated that the dumplings were most likely contaminated in China. One Chinese official suggested that the gyoza may have been contaminated deliberately in Japan to create friction between China and Japan or damage business for Chinese exporters. A tiny hole was found in the bag of gyoza that sickened three members of a family in Hyogo. The bags that sickened to family in Chiba contained no holes,

The gyoza was boxed soon after production and remained in these boxes while it was shipped to Japan. Gyoza earmarked for export was inspected at the factory rather than at a customs inspection station. The gyoza remained on sale one month after the first poisoning which raised question about why it wasn’t taken off the shelves earlier.

Stores that sold gyoza---especially that produced at the Tuangyang factory---pulled their products from the shelves. Restaurants and schools avoid Chinese products out of safety concerns after he gyoza scare A survey found that 83 percent of Japanese were worried about food safety,

The investigation was problematic. Many of the workers at the plant where the gyoza was made---which employs between 2,000 and 4,000 people--- for example, left shortly after the business was implicated in the scandal. The workers were paid about $140 a month for working 10 hours and were paid less than other workers in the area. There were reports of angry workers at the factory and some speculation that a disgruntled employee may have deliberately poisoned the dumplings.

In August 2008, the Chinese government did an about face and said the gyoza was likely tainted in China. It reported that poisoned products produced Tianynag Food in Hebei Province not only were consumed in Japan but also were consumed in China as well. The details of how the methamidophes entered the gyoza is still under investigation.

In April 2010, authorities in China announced they had arrested a 36-year-old former employee at Tianyang named Lu Yueting for poisoning the gyoza that sickened 10 people. The suspect---a disgruntled temporary worker upset that he was treated differently than full time workers and his wide was not given a bonus when she took maternity leave---allegedly injected the gyoza with a pesticide on three separate occasions between October and December 2007. According to newspaper reports he used methamidophos pesticide taken from the cleaning department of the Tianyang Food Factory and syringes thrown away by a medical institution.

Raw Meat Poisoning

In April and May 2011, four people died---two six-year-old boys and 70-year-old and 40-year-old women--- from food poisoning after eating raw beef from the Yakiniku-zakaya Ebisu chain of a barbecued meat restaurant in Toyama, Kanagawa and Fukui Prefectures. The victims died after being poisoned by a particularly dangerous 0-111 form a E. Coli. Another 100 people who ate at the restaurant chain---which is owned by the restaurant operator Food Forus Co.” complained of diarrhea and stomach aches and 35 were hospitalized, about 20 of them in serious condition. Most of the victims were from Toyama Prefecture. In October 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: A teenager hospitalized in critical condition for food poisoning in April after eating at an Ebisu restaurant died, the Toyama prefectural government. It is the fifth food-poisoning death linked to the yakiniku-zakaya Ebisu chain. The teenager, who had developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a complication arising from infection associated with the E. coli bacterium, dined at an Ebisu outlet in Tonami, Toyama Prefecture, with three family members.

The dish that the victims ate was a Korean delicacy know as yukke in Japan and yukhoe in Korea. It consists of ground up raw meat served with a raw egg. Often made with Australian beef, it is very popular in Japan as well as South Korea and many restaurants specialize in it. No one is known to have died from 0-111 E Coli before. Many restaurants stopped serving the dish after the poisoning.

Police investigations have indicated that the meat was contaminated before it reached the restaurants. Authorities raided the offices of the restaurant chain and the meat supplier, both of which appear to have acted improperly. The meat was supplied by a Tokyo-based wholesaler---Yamatoya Shoten--- which said the meat was supposed to have been cooked not eaten raw. The restaurant chain did not do E. Coli tests or trim the outer later as they were supposed to. In some cases Yamatoya made false claims about the meat, saying, for example, it was high-quality wagyu meat, when it was really a mix a mix of wagyu and beef from non-wagyu crossbreeds and dairy cows. Food Forus accused of Yamatoya of claiming their beef was safe and ready to make into yukke. An investigation of Yamatoya kitchens found that the yukke meat was prepared with the same utensils as non-yukke meat.

Most restaurant that serve yukke go through great trouble to avoid the risk of food poisoning. Anrakutei Co., a Saitama-based yakiniku barbecue chain, told Yomiuri Shimbun the company conducts bacteria tests on the Australian beef it uses for yukke three times---first before it is purchased, again before it is sent to the company's meat processing plant and finally before it is shipped to outlets. At the plant, the meat is processed separately from other food materials to prevent it from coming into contact with bacteria, the company explained. The outlets thaw the meat, which is vacuum-packed in single-serving portions, only when a customer places an order, the company said.

The standards for edible raw meat before the problem were introduced by the ministry in 1998 and communicated to local governments nationwide. The standards call on meat processors and eatery operators to have equipment that ensures hygiene control, and to trim the surface of raw meat, which is vulnerable to bacteria contamination, before serving. However, the current standards are not mandatory. Unless confirmed cases of food poisoning occur, the ministry cannot impose penalties on violators. The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has said it will introduce stricter standards for the handling of raw meat and penalties for violators. In South Korea, meat-safety standards are very strict and include surprise inspections. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun]

Regulations after the Raw Meat Poisoning

In October 2011, the government introduced stricter standards for restaurants serving raw beef in response to the deaths of four persons who ate yukke at restaurants. Under the new standards, restaurants will be obliged to heat the meat at 60 C to a depth of one centimeter or more for at least two minutes, and trim it with implements used exclusively for handling the meat. This procedure in may cases results in more being thrown away than Many restaurants will be forced to buy heat-treated blocks of meat from meat processors, increasing costs. Some barbecue restaurants may take raw meat off their menus because it would cost more to prepare and prices could triple. Violators of the new standards face such punishments as suspension of business, imprisonment for up to two years or a fine up to 2 million yen. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, October 3, 2011]

Food Forus decided to close its restaurants and shut down the company. According to the Yomiuri Shimbun: “About 50 percent of restaurants nationwide that serve raw meat have failed to meet the government's sanitation standards, a May 2011 health ministry survey found. Of 14,708 restaurants offering raw meat dishes, 7,622 outlets, or 51.8 percent, failed to meet the government's sanitation criteria for raw meat. In the survey, conducted through each prefectural government and certain municipal governments, local public health officials inspected a total of 19,856 restaurants and facilities that handle raw beef and horse meat for human consumption. These establishments comprise 14,708 restaurants, 674 slaughterhouses and 4,474 processed meat sellers. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 15, 2011]

In July 2012 restaurants were prohibited from serving raw beef liver by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, which advises heating the liver to its core before serving, especially during summer. The O-157 strain of E. coli bacteria was found to exist in beef liver, and no effective method of disinfecting raw liver has been determined. The ministry is calling on food and beverage establishments to take such measures as heating liver to its center for at least one minute at 75 C, and using separate tongs, chopsticks and cooking utensils for raw meat. Restaurants that violate the guidelines will be reprimanded by local governments. [Source: Jiji-Daily Yomiuri, July 2, 2012]

Tainted Rice in Japan

In September 2008, it was revealed that Mikasa Foods, an Osaka-based food-processing company, sold mislabeled imported rice---tainted with carcinogenic fungus and residual pesticide, intended for industrial use---as domestic rice safe for human consumption. Some of it was sold to food processor to make rice crackers and confectionary products. Some was sold to sake breweries who used it to make sochu liquor. Other companies also sold tainted rice, marked for industrial use or livestock feed, to schools.

The rice, mostly in originating in China and Vietnam, was distributed to 390 firms in 26 prefectures. It was served at school lunches consumed more than 8.8 million people. It was also consumed at nursery schools, hospitals and nursing homes. Asahi breweries recalled 650,000 bottles of sochu over concerns they might had been made with tainted rice. Among the contaminates that were detected were the pesticides methamidophos and acetaamiprdi and the poisonous mold aflatoxin.

The government ministry in charge of agriculture was condemned for not picking up on tainted rice sooner. It had carried out 83 inspections of Mikasa over a five year period, and then failed to reveal who had bough the rice when the scandal was revealed. The agriculture minister in charge of the issue didn’t help matter when the said they were “not overly fazed by the scandal.” He was forced to resign.

Seventeen companies, including sake makers and confectioners, lost ¥3.1 billion from tainted rice. The president of a rice sales company from in Nara that bought tainted rice hung himself, and that was a couple days after he failed in an attempt to commit suicide by consuming agricultural chemicals.

In February 2009, the president Mikasa Food and four other people at the company were arrested for knowingly reselling pesticide-tainted rice imported from Vietnam.

In July 2009, it was revealed that a Nagoya glue maker (Asai) made a $190,000 profit from selling tainted rice labeled unfit for human consumption as food. The company purchased 570 kilograms of the rice---which came from China and was contaminated with the pesticide methamidophos---from the government for ¥5 a kilogram and sold it ¥50 a kilogram to the food distributors Nonogaki Kokuhanda, which is believed to have known the rice was tainted. Asai went bankrupt and its president was arrested on for violations of food sanitation laws.

Other Problems in Japan with Foods from China

In Japan there were complaints of shrimp, other seafood, preserved pears, boiled mushrooms and baked eel imported from China that had high levels or bacteria, drugs or toxic chemicals. Eels and mackerel shipped from China to Japan were tainted with antimicrobial. Sulfur dioxide was found in shiitake mushrooms, acetrchlor was discovered in fresh matsutake mushrooms and triazophos turned up in oolong tea. Melamine has been detected in Chinese-made chocolates sold in Japan.

Coliform bacteria or bacteria coli were found in Chinese-produced fish sausage, frozen, stewed conger eel, frozen cut squid and frozen boiled crab in violation of the Japanese Food Sanitation Law. Particularly worrisome there was charcoal broiled eel, which was found to contain bacteria in excess of regulations, AOZ (3-amino-2-oxazolidinone), semicarbazide, coliform bacteria, malachite green and Leucomalachite green.

In September 2008, melamine---the chemical blamed for deaths and kidney stones of infants who drank tainted milk in China---was found is six milk-based products--- including Cream Panda, Gratin Crepe Corn, Matcha azuki Mirukuman’sold by Osaka-based Marudai foods in Japan. The amounts of melamine in the products---which were processed in China and exported to Japan---were very small and no illnesses but still the products were immediately taken off the shelves and recalled.

In October 2008, a 56-year-old woman in western Tokyo became sick and was hospitalized after eating frozen green beans from China that was contaminated with high concentrations of the insecticide dichlorvos. The woman said that after eating the beans she felt nausea and experienced a spreading numbness in her mouth and said the beans had a petroleum-like odor. This time around Chinese authorities promised swift and immediate cooperation. The factory that produced the beans in China was thoroughly checked by Chinese and Japanese investigators. No other contaminates beans were found. Later the investigation found that a small hole was made in the bag, suggesting the bag had been tampered with in either China or Japan.

The sale of matsusake mushrooms and other food products from China declined sharply in Japan over concerns about food safety. There appeared to be nothing wrong with the mushrooms. The decline was attributed to distrust of all food product produce in China. The Chinese government has banned products from Japan. It banned rice from Japan in 2003 due to quarantine problems concerning insects. The ban was lifted in 2007.

Genetically-Modified Food in Japan

Japan has blocked the import of genetically-modified (GM) food. Laws that went into affect in 2001, required genetically-modified food to labeled as such and thoroughly tested. Some companies have announced they would no longer GM products.

The Japanese are suspicious of GM foods. In a survey in 1999, 80 percent of Japanese said they had "reservations" about eating GM foods and 92.5 percent supported mandatory labeling. An anti-GM food movement is has a lot of supporters.

Japanese were upset about the presence of GM-modified Starling corn in processed foods imported from the United States. Japanese also worried about GM soy beans imported from the United States.

Deaths from Eating Konnyaku

Konnyaku is a circular root, also known as devil’s tongue, that is dried and pulverized into a power and made into noodles, bread with an unusually moist texture, and other products. It is also used as additive in a wide range of foods. One of the most popular konnyaku products is konnyaku jelly. First introduced in the early 1990s, it is widely used in meat buns to give the buns a springy texture and keep the meat juice from leaking out

A number of children and elderly people have died from choking on jelly products containing konnyaku. The problems was so severe that the government required products with the jelly to have large, prominet warning labels and encourages manufacturers to make their products with small, easy-to-swallow pieces. Konnyaku jelly is firmer and more elastic than ordinary jelly and is extremely difficult to remove if its gets stuck. When it is frozen it get firmer and even more dangerous. In 1995 and 1996 there were eight deaths involving small children and the elderly consuming konnyaku.

In September 2008, a 21-month-old boy died from chocking on a jelly product containing konnyaku. It was the 17th reported choking death related to konnyaku jelly since 1995. Warning that young people and the elderly should not consume products made with the jelly were reiterated. The boy was given a mango-flavored frozen jelly product made with konnyaki in July. The jelly got stuck in his throat, cutting of his air flow. The boy was brought the hospital and died.

At first companies that made konnyaku jelly increased safety measures and put larger warnings on the their products. Then many just decided it was too risky to make the stuff and stopped making konnyaku jelly products altogether.

Deaths from Eating Mochi

Mochi is a soft, chewy blob-shaped rice cake which can be eaten raw, boiled, toasted or grilled or placed in a soup. Along with sake, it is one of the most popular offerings to the Gods. It also a popular New Year food.

Mochi is extremely chewy and sticky. Each year several people die from choking to death on it when it gets struck in their throat. Most of the victims are older people. The problem is so serious that fire departments are put on alert for mochi emergencies and newspapers report the death toll from mochi-eating, much as American newspaper list holiday traffic deaths. In 1995, 11 people choked to death from eating mochi nationwide and ambulances responded to 28 mochi emergencies in Tokyo alone. [Source: Washington Post]

The Tokyo fire department advises elderly people in particular to cut the mochi into small pieces, "wet the throat, chew it fully and then swallow" and recommend that the mochi be eaten in the presence of others. Using a vacuum cleaner is the best way to get mochi un stuck in someone’s throat. In a famous scene from the Japanese movie Tampopo, an old man choking on mochi is first turned upside down and when that doesn’t a vacuum cleaner nozzle is jammed down his throat and the mochi is sucked pu.t

In the 2006-2007 New Years season four men ranging in age from 68 to 89 died from choking on mochi cakes. In 2008, two people---a 53-year-old man and a 89-year-old man---died from choking on mochi in Tokyo and 13 others were hospitalized for choking on mochi.

In Kyoto and other places there are mochi weightlifting competition in which men lift and hold a 150-kilogram hunk of mochi and women do the same with a 90-kilogram hunk. In 2009, a 49-year-old nurse held the the mochi hunk for eight minutes and 36 seconds, a new record in the women’s event.

Lakimochi is a specialty of the Horuriku region. It is made by frying or baking rice cakes after they have dried for about two months, They come in variety of colors including yellow jasmine-flavored ones and pink ones containing salmon and laver.

Sickened by Toxic Toadstools and Daffodil Gyoza

According to a Yomiuri Shimbun article: “Poisonous mushrooms have sickened 209 people in 72 incidents in 2010 year as of October 20, already 10 more than was seen in 60 cases in all of 2007, which was the most that had occurred in the past five years. The high number of poisonings have led the Niigata prefectural government to issue an “outbreak warning” for the first time in 10 years.” [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun , November 5, 2010]

“According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, poisoning incidents and even the sale of toxic mushrooms were confirmed in 26 prefectures, including Tokyo. The main culprits are the kusaurabenitake, tsukiyotake and nigakuritake fungi. In Fukushima Prefecture, two persons who had eaten kusaurabenitake were hospitalized temporarily for nausea and diarrhea. The prefecture has seen the largest number of poisonings---41 people sickened in 16 cases.” [Ibid]

“According to Shigeru Aono, senior director of the prefecture's mushroom promotion center in Koriyama, toxic mushrooms grew well this year due to the hot summer, which raised soil temperatures to about 25 C, a favorable environment for toadstool growth. Lower temperatures and wet weather since mid-September have also sped up the growth process, he said. "Amateurs that heard there was a lot of mushrooms this year picked some without knowing they were toxic," Aono said.” [Ibid]

“In some cases, even professionals have been tricked into picking poison fungus. Kusaurabenitake and nigakuritake were found on sale in Hiratamura, Fukushima Prefecture, and in Sumida Ward, Tokyo. Experts say it is important for people to get the mushrooms they pick examined at health centers or other facilities. The health ministry also carries information on its Web site about how to distinguish toxic mushrooms.” [Ibid]

In December 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: Nine sixth-graders at a primary school in Kamiyamacho, Tokushima Prefecture, suffered food poisoning after eating gyoza containing poisonous daffodil leaves that had been mistakenly put in the dumplings instead of Chinese chives. The nine suffered symptoms such as vomiting, but recovered. According to the officials, a teacher took some daffodils grown at home to school. Daffodil leaves are long and flat, and look similar to Chinese chives and shallots. Fifteen students and teachers at Hirono Primary School had been making gyoza in a cooking class. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, December 8, 2012]

Six Die, 93 Suffer Food Poisoning after Eating Pickled Chinese Cabbage

In August 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Four people, including a 4-year-old girl, have been confirmed dead of food poisoning from pickled Chinese cabbage produced by a Sapporo food company, it has been learned. Another two are also suspected to have died due to the cabbage. According to the city healthcare center, four people have died of poisoning caused by the O-157 strain of E.coli bacteria after eating pickled Chinese cabbage produced in late July by Iwai Shokuhin. Three of the four victims were women in their 80s and 100s living in elderly care facilities in the city. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, August 18, 2012]

Mass food poisoning occurred at elderly care facilities in and around the city, with 99 patients likely connected to the suspect cabbage. Four-year-old girl Ayana Matsumura of Sapporo suffered symptoms including diarrhea and died two weeks later. The O-157 strain discovered in her body was found to be the same strain detected in the cabbage. According to information relayed to the city by her family, she is very likely to have eaten cabbage bought at a supermarket near her house. [Ibid] The two whose poisoning has yet to be confirmed are women in their 90s who were living in an elderly care facility in the jurisdiction of the prefectural Ebetsu Health Center. They ate the pickle and were hospitalized after developing symptoms such as stomachaches and diarrhea. They later died of hemolytic-uremic syndrome. Though the O-157 strain has not been detected in the two women yet, they lived in an elderly facility where mass food poisoning occurred. The food firm's president, Norio Iwai, expressed deep regret Thursday. "I feel deeply about [the incident] and will do my best to help investigations. I can only say I'm truly sorry," he said. [Ibid]

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2013

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