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Sunday, March 1, 2009
Japan loves wasting food
Food thrown away in Tokyo each day could feed 4.5 million
The Fair Trade Commission's current investigation into whether or not Seven-Eleven Japan Co. bullies its franchise members has been barely covered by commercial TV news, which isn't surprising.
Seven & i Holdings, the parent company, is one of the few major corporations still buying ad time despite the recession, so TV stations aren't likely to risk making the company mad.
NHK doesn't have to worry about ads, and its coverage of the issue has been more thorough. In a nutshell, franchise owners of Seven-Eleven convenience stores have complained to the FTC for years that representatives of Seven-Eleven Japan have told them not to sell perishable foods at discounts as expiration times approach. Franchise owners have to throw this food away if it isn't sold in time and absorb the cost. The parent company loses nothing when food is thrown away.
The coverage, even on NHK, has looked at the problem from a purely business perspective. The FTC suspects Seven-Eleven is violating the Anti-Monopoly Law, and any analysis involves explanations about franchise contracts and the royalty that owners have to pay to Seven-Eleven for everything they sell. Explained in those terms, it's a story that only affects the people involved, but told from a different angle it takes on a dimension that affects us all — wasted food.
Japan's agricultural ministry estimates that 23 million tons of food was discarded in 2007, about ¥11 trillion worth, which is the monetary equivalent of Japan's annual agricultural output. Moreover, it cost ¥2 trillion to process that waste.
To give the company its due, Seven & i Holdings, which also owns the supermarket chain Ito Yokado, launched a system in 2007 to recycle the food it throws away, mostly into fertilizer and livestock feed, which means it's being used to produce more food. It sounds responsible, but what this process does is provide economic justification for a practice that is morally indefensible.
In Tokyo alone, food accounts for 30 percent of all household waste. That's about 6,000 tons a day, which is enough to keep 4.5 million starving people alive for a day.
Other developed countries waste food, too, but in Japan the problem is particularly paradoxical. Japan's 40-percent food self-sufficiency rate is the lowest of all G7 countries, which means the bulk of Japan's food supply is imported. And yet a third of that food ends up in the garbage.
Seven-Eleven has said it does not tell franchise owners they cannot discount prepared foods. However, they admit company representatives may try to discourage store owners from cutting prices because it could signal to consumers that Seven-Elevens do not sell fresh food. The discrepancy here is that you can find the exact same products in both a Seven-Eleven convenience store and an Ito Yokado supermarket, but the product in the supermarket will invariably be discounted just before its sell-by time, while the product in the convenience store won't. This discrepancy has led analysts to conclude that the royalties Seven-Eleven franchises must pay are the main reason behind the "discouragement" to cut prices. Royalties are based on profits, and when prices are cut, so are profits.
However, the "freshness" argument has traction in Japan, especially in the past few years, what with all the food-labeling scandals. Proper labeling is something the authorities should enforce, but food safety has perhaps been over-regulated. According to the magazine Kinyobi, 90 percent of Japanese public schools do not allow children to take home bread left over from school lunches. This situation stems from a 1996 food-poisoning incident in Osaka; four children died. The source of the poisoning has never been determined, but it was clear that the tainted food was served at school. Still, the prohibition against taking home leftover food seems to have more to do with schools wanting to pre-empt possible lawsuits than with preventing outbreaks of food poisoning. In the end, it means that the bread kids don't take home gets thrown out.
What's missing from the food-safety debate is the notion of personal responsibility. Everyday life entails a certain level of risk that we negotiate through our common sense. Kinyobi makes this point with the most prosaic of items: the doggy bag, which has only recently started to see use in Japan. In the West, where restaurant portions tend to be bigger, it's common for diners to take home the leftovers from their meals. In Japan, such an option has always been conditional. Restaurants discourage patrons from taking home leftovers because they say the food may spoil, but it's common for salarymen to bring sushi back for their families after a night out drinking with colleagues — and sushi is raw.
Food safety isn't the only factor. According to a survey conducted by Sankei Shimbun last fall, Japanese diners almost never ask for doggy bags because they're afraid it might offend the proprietor. This attitude was engendered by TV programs and print features that promote the snob appeal of eating out, but the truth is, Japanese restaurants throw away 31 percent of the food they prepare. In effect, there is a consumer mind-set that encourages food waste and which Seven-Eleven Japan, or, at least, its field representatives, seems willing to exploit.
Kinyobi says that consumers are becoming less self-conscious about taking home the leftovers from their restaurant meals, and that's a good sign. But it should be noted that the doggy bags they use aren't usually provided by restaurants, the way they are overseas. Here, you bring your own. In fact, you can now buy special containers made of colorful plastic just for such a purpose. You carry it around with you, like an accessory. The solution to the food waste problem? Make it a fashion prerogative.