Thursday, June 28, 2007

Meat Hope

Meat Hope

On Monday 25 June 2007 I asked some of my Japanese students of English at Waniguchi Gakko to discuss Meat Hope. To my surprise, one of them drew a blank. He obviously hadn't been following the news, which is a mistake, because if you don't follow the news then sooner or later you will miss something really, really juicy, like New York being wiped out by a giant meteorite strike, or Paris Hilton being caught in Saks Fifth Avenue wearing a suicide bomber belt. Or George W. Bush finally biting the bullet and doing what is really necessary to bring peace to the Middle
East, which is to invade Switzerland.

In my student's case he had an excuse, because he's off to France next week with his wife. He's an antiques dealer here in Japan, and he and his wife are off to the land of frogs to buy antiques, so, being all fired up about that, he doesn't have much time to worry his head about the wider world.

Out in that wider world, the Hokkaido-based meat company which goes by the name of Meat Hope has scandalized Japan in a way which has displaced the ongoing pensions problem from the number one slot in the TV news.

Imagine a company that would sell products labeled as one hundred percent beef but which would add to the product any kind of meat it could get its hands on. Got some dead elephants, a few beached whales, some redundant dinosaur flesh? Okay, then Meat Hope would like to buy it, because everything is grist to its mill.

Because there are no elephants, stranded whales or dead dinosaurs on the Japanese meat market, Meat Hope didn't buy those things. For similar reasons, they didn't buy dead dogs, human corpses or second-hand placentas to add to the mix.

But what Meat Hope did buy, to mix in with its theoretical beef was pork, chicken, lamb, venison and bread rolls.

Here in Japan, journalists have been amusing themselves by buying samples of Meat Hope products and then sending them to the lab so technicians can analyze the DNA and get a handle on exactly what fractions of the zoo were chopped up and blended to make this junk.

One aspect of this situation that I drew out in the classroom is that a small fraction of Japan's resident population adheres to the Muslim faith, and pork is forbidden if you cleave to the teachings of Islam. One of my students responded by asking, well, can Muslims tell the difference between pork and beef if they eat it?

I answered, probably not, but that's the point. I went on to explain the cultural point as follows: you're Japanese, so you don't eat human beings. But imagine if a company sold you human flesh labeled as beef and you went and eat it. Even though you didn't do anything wrong because you didn't know what you were eating, if you found out then you'd feel pretty horrible.

I think the point got across.

So far, to the best of my knowledge, no angry voices have been raised in Japan's pretty small Islamic community, but, even so, there's an issue here.

In addition to routinely having pork masquerade as beef, Meat Hope also got in the habit of buying almost-expired product from other companies. It put this product through a ghastly rejuvenating process, sometimes adding cattle hearts to tweak the color for cosmetic purposes, then gave it glossy labels and sold it to wholesale suppliers, who then onsold it to retailers.

But, as for the rest, in some cases you would have been better off eating directly out of the garbage bin.

A certain fraction of this product was obviously not of merchantable quality, and in one case, having reached the retail level, some of this product liquefied. Naturally, customers complained.

When complaints worked their way back through the food chain to Meat Hope, it had a standard procedure.

1. Buy back the product (and apologize, of course.)

2. Tell the insurance company that a bad worker had messed up, so can you pay us compensation money, please?

3. Get the money from the insurance company and put it in the bank.

4. Change insurance companies. (Insurance companies aren't run by dummies, and if you keep trying to pull the same stunt on them, they'll start to see a pattern.)

This misbehavior apparently started twenty-four years ago and gradually escalated, to the point where Meat Hope became notorious in the meat industry as "the dumping ground," the place where you could offload, for a profit, stuff which should properly have been sent to the tip.

("The tip" is, in New Zealand English, the place to which you haul garbage and dump it.)

One of the Japanese enterprises which onsold Hope Meat products is an outfit called Co-op. This is more or less the same as a supermarket chain, but with one wrinkle: to buy from them, you have to become a member, and to become a member you have to give them five thousand yen (which will be refunded if you ever choose to leave.)

We first joined Co-op some years ago when we were living in Hiyoshi, which is in Kohoku ward in Yokohama, the same ward in which we reside now. In those days, I used to backpack along a little path that ran by our house, a path that followed what was once a stream bed, and I used to get stuff directly from the Co-op building. These days, my wife does her supermarket shopping in the privacy of our living room, filling in an order form. Co-op uplifts the form and delivers the goods on Tuesdays. Stuff that needs to be in the fridge sits safely in special polystyrene boxes if there's nobody at home to take it inside immediately.

When I discussed Meat Hope with my wife, she assured me that the Meat Hope croquettes that featured in the news as being sold by Co-op were not the same as the croquettes that we buy from Co-op. We have been buying a different brand.

This was reassuring, but, even so, the fact is that Meat Hope succeeded in slipping its disgusting garbage can products into a distribution chain which leads right to our doorstep. Literally.

What follows are some quotes from various pages that I found online relating to Meat Hope. I won't give the urls, but, if you're interested, you can track the story by going to news.google.com and punching "meat hope" into the search box, including the quotes at either end of the search term.

From DAILY YOMIURI ONLINE:

"A former employee of Meat Hope Co. has told The Yomiuri Shimbun that the Hokkaido-based meat-processing company, found to have put pork offal into products labeled ground beef, also falsely labeled diced meat products."

Again from DAILY YOMIURI ONLINE:

"Meat Hope Co., a meat-processing firm in Hokkaido implicated in a scandal over the false labeling of products, sold ground meat mixed with pork, chicken, duck and other meat, but labeled only as ground beef, to Hokkaido Katokichi Co. and 17 other companies since around 1998, according to the results of an Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry search of the company."

And once again from the DAILY YOMIURI ONLINE:

"A former employee of Meat Hope told The Yomiuri Shimbun of witnessing the use of bread as a bulking agent five or six years ago."

From KYODO NEWS:

"Hokkaido-based meat processor Meat Hope Co. officially told all 60 of its employees Tuesday they will be dismissed because it has become difficult to maintain its businesses due to a false-labeling scandal.

"Meat Hope is expected to take legal procedures to liquidate itself soon, but it has not yet decided on what to do with its affiliated meat sales company and restaurant, company officials said."

And this from THE JAPAN TIMES:

"A former Meat Hope employee has also said that the firm altered the expiration date for frozen croquettes by buying back outdated products from stores at a discount, changing the use-by date, and reselling them to affiliated restaurants and volume retailers."

And from ASAHI.COM, giving us news of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries:

"The ministry determined that Meat Hope's wrongdoings had been willfully conducted on a systematic basis on the orders of President Minoru Tanaka and other executives."

The company president, Minoru Tanaka, is a guy we keep seeing on television, and, given the enormous pressure he must be under, I'm surprised that he hasn't already committed suicide, and I won't be at all surprised if he actually does.

The picture that emerges from the ASAHI.COM piece is one of steady escalation, starting as follows:

" The first misconduct confirmed by the ministry took place in or around 1983, when the company mixed scrap barbecued pork into ground pork. Meat Hope later mixed pig intestines into its ground pork.

"Around 1998, Meat Hope started mixing components like pork, chicken and even duck meat into its ground beef products."

The ASAHI.COM piece also notes that ground beef which was supposedly Hokkaido beef was, in some cases, actually meat from Australia and New Zealand.

Undoubtedly all the bad product will be purged from the system in due course, but, for the moment, if you're in Japan, be careful. You might think you are having the pleasure of eating elite Hokkaido beef, but what is actually on your plate might quite possibly be the low-class meat eaten by the peasants who inhabit Australia and New Zealand.

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