Hotels and stores admit food fraud in JapanDecember 2013
Japanese hoteliers have long prided themselves on elevating the meals in their traditional Japanese restaurants to works of art in appearance, content, and price. Nothing has been more important than the provenance of carefully selected ingredients that are delicately prepared for presentation on the finest china for diners to enjoy.
This elaborate facade collapsed when a diner at a Prince Hotel in Tokyo this May noticed a dish described as "scallops" used a cheaper shellfish. The diner posted his discovery online, prompting the Prince chain to launch an investigation of all its restaurants around Japan.
The hotel found that 3,596 customers in April and May this year had been similarly misled and that there had been incorrect menu descriptions at 32 Prince Restaurants going back to 2005. So far, over $1.1 million has been refunded to customers who have claimed they ate mislabelled dishes.
The Prince’s revelations sparked similar investigations and similar findings across Japan’s hotel industry, and also drew in the major department stores, all of whom use provenance to support high prices.
Shock grew when department store chains admitted to misleading their customers by falsely labelling items in their restaurant menus. Isetan Mitsukoshi Holdings Ltd., Japan’s largest department store operator, said that 14 of their restaurants use ingredients different from those indicated in menus.
Takashimaya Co., Daimaru Matsuzakaya Department Stores Co. Ltd., and Odakyu Department Store Co. Ltd., all admitted similar practices. Takashimaya also found that one of their restaurants used inexpensive processed meat injected with beef fat and called it “steak.”
French luxury food-maker Fauchon entered the scandal when products made under a licensing agreement with Takashimaya were revealed to misrepresent ingredients. Fauchon said it would tighten quality controls.
By mid-November over 200 hotel, department store, and restaurant companies had admitted falsely labelling food they served, invariably substituting inexpensive for costly ingredients.
Consumer groups said that these admissions show a business culture where profit is more important than credibility. Shufuren, the Confederation of Homemaker Associations, said that companies “cashed in on the trend for consumers to prefer quality even at high prices.”
To date, no one has been charged with a criminal offence. The Government says it plans to amend the products labelling law, strengthen enforcement, and introduce new legislation next year. However, despite compensation payments and tighter regulation, for many Japanese, eating out will never be quite the same again.
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