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Sunday, July 8, 2007

MEDIA MIX

Take a slab of meat, beef up the label on it and Hope for the best


There's a stereotype that says the Japanese possess a refined palate. The French are said to possess it, too, but have you seen a French movie lately? All they eat is spaghetti.

In Japan's case, the stereotype is mostly self-generated, and the rapid rise of fast food has done nothing to counter it. Last week, a reporter for the online OhMy News service wrote about how he eats more meals consisting of hamburgers than meals consisting of rice, and at the moment his favorite food is McDonald's limited-edition Mega Teriyaki Burger — two meat patties slathered in teriyaki sauce and stuck in a bun.

Recently he was enjoying one when his companion said, "What if I told you that what you are eating is pork?" The reporter sniffed, "I think I know the difference between pork and beef." He called McDonald's public-relations department, which informed him that the Mega Teriyaki is indeed 100 percent pork, just like the sausage served with the McDonald's breakfast. It says so right there on the MacDonald's Web site.

The reporter was stunned, since he couldn't taste the difference. As a result, he came to realize that the Meat Hope scandal which has dominated the news cycle for the past several weeks "may only be the tip of the iceberg."

Meat Hope is the Hokkaido meat processor currently under investigation for mislabeling the products it sells. Ground meat sold by the company as beef was found to contain the meat of pigs and horses, not to mention offal and trim and even soybean byproducts. Chickens labeled as being domestically raised were said to be actually from Brazil. Croquettes that went unsold by their sell-by date were bought back by the company and resold. As ridiculous as the company name may sound to a native English speaker, given its alleged infractions "Meat Hope" as a corporate moniker is practically sublime. One buys their product in the hope that it's actually meat.

Of course, it isn't the first mislabeling scandal to rock the Japanese meatpacking industry, and, as the OhMy reporter implied, it seems entirely likely that the practice is widespread.

Some media reports claim that Meat Hope has been mislabeling its products since 1983. The whistle blower who exposed the company's misdeeds allegedly brought evidence to local authorities and the agriculture ministry last year but was ignored. It wasn't until that person went to the media that the mislabeling came to light.

An article in last week's Shukan Post explained how widespread mislabeling is and put forth the supposition that Meat Hope President Minoru Tanaka simply adopted fraudulent practices that are common throughout the industry. Tanaka is a famous success story in Hokkaido. He entered the business as a teen and once received an award for devising a new type of meat grinder. His success, implied the Post, is based on his skill in exploiting people's belief that they understand quality when, of course, they don't.

The article explains how it is ridiculously easy to pass ground meat off as anything you want. Some fast-food companies use beef from dairy cows, which is cheaper than that from beef cattle and usually tougher. The meat is tenderized with additives, spices are added for flavor and extra fat is injected for juiciness. And when you mix this ground meat with mashed potatoes and deep fry it to make croquettes, it becomes even easier to pass off as something else.

In fact, a good deal of the cost of processing meat goes into making it look or feel right rather than taste good. Additives and extra blood are used to improve meat color and texture. And the practice isn't limited to meat. Even sashimi is sprayed with oil to make it look glossier.

According to one food scholar interviewed by the Post, "Mass production means you always have to be suspicious. The responsibility lies with the consumer." However, consumers are often more interested in convenience and low price than they are in quality, and — the BSE scare that kept American beef out of Japan for more than a year notwithstanding — safety may not be as big a factor as some believe. As a housewife friend once told me, "The fact that I buy processed food means I've essentially given up."

Tanaka tried to use this idea in his defense, telling reporters that he was always under pressure because "consumers demand cheap food now."

But that isn't the half of it. The media has somehow convinced consumers that they can have their sirloin and eat it too. If you watch any 6 o' clock news show these days, you will always see a segment in which reporters feast on heavenly sushi or steaks that are unbelievably low-priced. Until the end of the bubble era, the media focused on gorgeous food as a once-in-a-while luxury, but since the early '90s economizing has probably been the fastest-rising fad in TV programming. The message is: You don't have to spend big to eat grandly.

So if the consumer demands low price and high quality, he will get it; or, more precisely, he will be made to think he is getting it. Much of the mislabeling that Meat Hope carried out did not necessarily mean that the meat was bad. Adding organs and horsemeat to beef didn't make the final product unsafe. In terms of food efficiency, it could be considered a good thing, since it means less stuff is thrown away.

That isn't to say Meat Hope shouldn't be punished. Understanding the real ingredients of the food you eat is very important, and if you have some sort of food allergy, it can be a matter of life or death. But the real reason the media has focused so much attention on the scandal is that Tanaka's subterfuge implicitly mocks Japan's storied taste buds. The OhMy reporter learned this the hard way: A Mega Teriyaki Burger will never taste the same again.



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