Facebook Twitter

Bad-milk scandal stuns Japan

SHARE Bad-milk scandal stuns Japan

TOKYO — Japan, a nation long dominated by trusted corporations, was stunned by the news that a leading dairy manufacturer was temporarily halting production after more than 11,000 people were sickened by its tainted milk.

The food poisoning, which struck last month, stemmed from staph bacteria in a production-line valve for lowfat milk at a Snow Brand Milk Products Co. factory in Osaka, western Japan.

Snow Brand recalled its Osaka plant products and many supermarkets stopped carrying everything made by the company. There were allegations in the Japanese media that Snow Brand had used milk returned from stores, including some with expired freshness dates, to make other products. Police have begun an investigation into possible criminal negligence.

This week, the company announced it was halting production at its 21 plants for about a week. Spokeswoman Kazu Taguchi said inspections at the plants began Wednesday and the company has apologized for what happened and acknowledged the possibility some of its products were recycled.

The food poisoning so shattered consumer confidence that some Japanese are afraid to buy any milk at all.

"It's frightening. I'm never going to buy another Snow Brand product again," said Toshiko Akiyama, 52, clutching a French-made Camembert cheese she had bought instead of locally produced milk products. "I'm outraged. I'd trusted them."

While the staphylococcus aureus bacteria can cause vomiting and diarrhea, it's not usually deadly. An 84-year-old woman who was hospitalized after drinking Snow Brand milk died Sunday of a heart attack, but doctors were investigating whether the death was caused by food poisoning. At least five people remain hospitalized, Osaka officials said.

Troubles hit another maker, Morinaga Milk Industry Co., this week, when at least 80 children complained of abdominal pains and a strange smell in their milk. Morinaga spokesman Shigeo Kurihara said the likely cause was the stronger disinfectant used on its crates in response to the food poisoning at Snow Brand.

With its roots in a cooperative of dairy farmers formed in the 1920s, Snow Brand grew into a nationwide brand, gradually fostering a fondness for milk and cheese among a people more used to fish and rice. The company's snowflake logo gained recognition throughout Japan.

What has especially outraged Japanese was Snow Brand's response to the crisis. Instead of rushing to recall its products, the company initially appeared preoccupied with its reputation.

TV news footage showed Snow Brand President Tetsuro Ishikawa snapping at a persistent reporter, "I haven't slept a wink." Ishikawa later said he would resign.

"The response of the company's top management does not reflect the sense of responsibility that should go hand-in-hand with a food manufacturer," the national Asahi newspaper said.

The food poisoning is just one more corporate failing fraying Japan's faith in its once-mighty companies. On Wednesday, a department store chain, Sogo Co., went bankrupt after public criticism forced it to turn down a government bailout.

Eleven-year-old Akira Sato still isn't used to the new brand of milk at his school. But he acknowledged he was afraid to drink Snow Brand.

"What happened might happen again," the fifth grader said.