As many as 1,400 people have fallen ill in Japan after eating frozen food alleged to be laced with pesticide. These food products were manufactured by AqliFoods, a subsidiary of Japan’s largest seafood firm, Maruha Nichiro Holdings.
Investigations revealed that the company had received complaints from customers as early as November 13, 2013, with customer complaining that the frozen pizza smelled of machine oil. However, the company did not immediately issue a recall on its products but conducted a series of tests which concluded late in December. It was not until December 29, 2013 that a product recall was issued by AqliFoods.
The tests revealed that the products contained traces of malathion, a chemical widely used in pest control and for the treatment of head lice. The highest concentration of the pesticide was found in frozen corn cream croquette. The processed food contains as much as 15,000 parts per million (ppm) of the organic phosphate. Even eating as small as 1/8 of the croquette can cause vomiting and other symptoms of food poisoning in a 20-kg child.
Aside from the frozen corn cream croquette, there were 6 other frozen products that also tested positive of malathion.
The local press reported that the Gunma Prefectural Police suspect the addition of the toxin was deliberate. According to the report, Gunma police believe that the concentration of malathion was too high for it to be just a residue from any of the ingredients used processing the frozen foods.
However, the view that the toxin was deliberately added in the packing section was not shared by many, especially by some of the investigators who saw the working condition at a factory in Gunma, north of Tokyo.
Based on their investigations, the workers wear uniforms that do not have pockets. Also, they work so closely together that it would be virtually impossible for someone to add the malathion pesticide into the products without a number of other workers noticing, especially considering that the toxin emits a strong smell.
Still, the police continue to investigate the matter, especially at the packaging room where as many as 81 people are regularly working in. This section receives a wide range of frozen foods from several production lines. It became the focus of the investigation after authorities found that several products were laced with malathion, not just one particular item.
As of Tuesday, as many as 1.8 million packages have been recovered by AqliFoods but it had issued the recall to as many as 6.4 million potentially tainted products. None of the products involved in the recall were shipped outside the country.
AqliFoods president Yutaka Tanabe met with Consumer Affairs Minister Masako Mori last Wednesday, January 8, 2014, to discuss the matter. Mori chastised the company’s president for being too slow in investigating and reporting the matter, adding that the government only takes action if there were reports from businesses.
Food scandals are rare in Japan, especially because even those companies who simply fail to meet the expectations of consumers could find reputational damage that may last for several years. Also, the country has very high manufacturing standards, especially regarding food safety.