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Sunday, July 9, 2000

Snow's tainted-milk fiasco likened to deadly Tokai nuclear negligence


Staff Writer

OSAKA -- Local residents here are angry over revelations that Snow Brand Milk Products Co.'s bacteria-tainted milk was released due to slipshod quality control procedures, and with their faith in the firm shattered, they are comparing the mass food-poisonings to last year's deadly nuclear accident.

On Tuesday, Osaka officials ordered two more Snow Brand milk products pulled from shelves and all products manufactured at the company's factory in Osaka's Miyakojima district recalled after 43 people became sick. They followed that order up with a demand that the plant suspend operations indefinitely.

With the latest revelations, serious questions have been raised by local citizens about both Snow Brand's quality control process and why local health inspectors failed to detect the problem earlier.

As of early this week, over 11,000 people in eight prefectures had fallen ill, allegedly after drinking low-fat milk and other products tainted with staphylococcus aureas. City health inspectors said the source of the contamination, a dirty valve in the plant that controls the flow of milk into holding tanks, had not been properly inspected.

Supermarkets and convenience stores in the Osaka area wasted no time in removing the tainted milk from their shelves. Signs explaining the move and advising customers to be careful could be seen at numerous Lawson's, AM-PM and Family Mart outlets. The milk sections at the large department stores were largely bare last week, as customers stayed away.

"My faith in Snow Brand has been shattered. Their milk was considered top quality, but I'll have to think twice before I buy their milk again," said Akiko Kusawa, a 43-year-old housewife who lives in Tenma.

Employees at 10 convenience stores in Osaka said last week that customers have been avoiding all Snow Brand products, even though contamination was only initially discovered in the low-fat milk.

"We've actually pulled all Snow Brand milk off of our shelves. No one feels the milk is safe, so it wouldn't sell even if we put it on the shelf. Besides, our customers might complain that we are being irresponsible," said Jochi Nishizaki, an assistant manager at a Family Mart store in Osaka's Nishi ward.

The Snow Brand poisonings follow almost four years to the day an outbreak of E. coli O-157 bacteria in the nearby town of Sakai, which left two elementary school students dead and dozens of others ill. Unlike the E. coli incident, however, there has been little panic on the part of Osaka residents, as the cause of the poisonings was discovered almost immediately.

What especially angered many ordinary shoppers, though, were the revelations that Snow Brand employees ignored company safety manuals and failed to conduct regular examinations for bacteria.

"It's like what happened at Tokai (Ibaraki Prefecture) last year. Once again, we see a supposedly trustworthy company ignore safety procedures in favor of cheaper shortcuts and then try to cover it up afterward," Yumi Kadachi, a 32-year-old office worker in Umeda, said, likening Snow's apparent negligence with the unsafe procedures that led to the criticality accident at the JCO Co. uranium reprocessing plant in Tokai.

Even after Snow announced it would recall all of its products manufactured at the Miyakojima plant and authorities ordered a halt of operations at the plant, many store owners said it was going to take a lot more than that to regain the public's trust.

"We were told by a Snow Brand representative that milk and dairy products from other plants are safe, but, quite frankly, there is room for doubt, as they seem to be trying to cover up their mistakes," said Kenichi Sato, who runs a small mom-and-pop grocery store in Kyobashi."For the moment, we suspended deliveries of all Snow Brand products until the company convinces us that their products are safe."



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