The nation’s largest department store operator admitted to cheating customers by falsely labeling restaurant menus, part of a growing scandal that has sparked consumer outrage and prompted government calls for industry-wide investigations.
Isetan Mitsukoshi Holdings Ltd. said Nov. 6 that ingredients different from those displayed in the menu were used for 52 dishes at 14 restaurants in its Isetan and Mitsukoshi department stores and other facilities.
More than 200,000 of these dishes have been served since 1996, company officials said.
Like other companies involved in the menu mislabeling scandal, the restaurants used low-priced white leg shrimp although the menus advertised more pricy Shiba and Taisho shrimp. The company also admitted to using beef injected with beef cattle tallow for a menu item listed as “steak.”
Isetan Mitsukoshi Holdings’ investigation covered restaurant tenants in its department stores. It already reported its findings to the Consumer Affairs Agency and stopped offering the dishes or corrected the labels in the menus.
Hotel New Grand, one of the best-known hotels in Yokohama, also said Nov. 6 that it mislabeled dishes at its Sea Guardian II bar.
A shrimp cocktail contained white leg shrimp instead of Shiba shrimp on the menu, while orange juice processed and refrigerated in the United States was served as fresh juice.
The bayside hotel, founded in 1927, is the place where Gen. Douglas MacArthur stayed immediately after World War II.
The admissions came a day after Takashimaya Co., another prestigious department store operator, and three hotel chains admitted to misleading customers at their restaurants.
Takashimaya on Nov. 5 acknowledged a number of mislabeling practices. For example, Fauchon, a high-end delicatessen in the Takashimaya store in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district, used black tiger shrimp for the menu item listed as “kuruma ebi” (Japanese tiger prawn) terrine.
Japanese tiger prawn costs twice or three times as much as black tiger shrimp on the market.
Tokyu Hotels Co. said restaurants and banquet halls at its 20 affiliated hotels used white leg shrimp that were described Shiba shrimp on the menu.
The company said those establishments served 477,000 meals with mislabeled ingredients between April 2007 and October this year.
Hotel Keihan acknowledged the same day that its three hotels in Kyoto and Osaka had “steak” on the menu, but the food was actually processed meat sprayed with beef cattle tallow.
JR Kyushu Hotels, an affiliate of Kyushu Railway Co., also said that chicken dishes at its two hotels in Miyazaki and Kagoshima prefectures were falsely labeled.
Consumer groups said the scandal has exposed a business culture that places priority on profits at the expense of credibility.
“They sat back, waited for customers and cashed in on the trend of consumers preferring quality items even at higher prices,” said Mariko Sano, who heads the secretariat of Shufuren, the confederation of homemaker associations.
Hiroki Ko, a magazine editor well-versed in the food industry, said the gourmet boom over the past 20 years in Japan has led consumers to value “signs on a plate,” such as brand-name ingredients.
“Placing a premium on these signs came out in the worst form in the latest scandal,” he said.
After excluding costs for payroll, food ingredients and utilities, profit margins at restaurants in hotels are usually less than half of those for hotel rooms, according to industry officials. Restaurant staff may have felt the need to use cheaper ingredients to optimize profits, hotel industry officials said.
Yutaka Masuyama, managing director at Takashimaya, apologized in a Nov. 5 news conference in Tokyo for the disparity in items on the menu and ingredients actually used.
“We failed in exercising proper oversight due to a lack of understanding (of the importance of accuracy) of the menu,” he said. “The cost will get a lot higher if we use Japanese tiger prawn. Taking account of a comprehensive set of factors, we settled on the use of black tiger shrimp and we forgot to change the menu display.”
Fauchon, a food brand that originated in Paris and is known for delis, sweets and tea, served the falsely labeled shrimp terrine between October 2006 and October this year at the Nihonbashi store. A Takashimaya subsidiary obtained the license to sell Fauchon’s dishes.
Six Takashimaya and affiliated outlets sold more than 180,000 falsely labeled food items worth about 300 million yen ($3.05 million) from April 2004.
Black tiger shrimp terrine was also labeled as Japanese tiger prawn in Fauchon’s “osechi ryori” traditional food sets for the New Year’s holidays. The sets were sold to other department stores, including those of Daimaru, Matsuzakaya, Odakyu and Keio, through the Takashimaya subsidiary.
In response to inquiries by The Asahi Shimbun, J Front Retailing Co., operator of Daimaru and Matsuzakaya department stores, said it is checking for any cases of false labeling.
The latest menu mislabeling scandal surfaced late last month, when Hankyu Hanshin Hotels Co. announced that 47 food items served at its hotels and other places in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and elsewhere were erroneously labeled between March 2006 and September this year.
Hiroshi Desaki, president of Hankyu Hanshin Hotels, resigned to take responsibility.
“Both Takashimaya and Hankyu Hanshin Hotels are top-class businesses,” Hisa Anan, chief of the Consumer Affairs Agency, told The Asahi Shimbun on Nov. 5. “I cannot understand why they do things like this.”
The agency has received reports from Hankyu Hanshin Hotels and other companies about the mislabeling practice. It is expected to soon announce its findings and possible disciplinary measures.
The agency also plans to demand investigations by hotel and other industry associations.
However, Japan has no legislation stipulating clear standards for menu displays at restaurants, meaning that the companies did not necessarily violate the law.
The Japanese Agricultural Standards (JAS) Law regulates how to display ingredients in labels for foods such as perishable items and processed foods. But it does not cover meals and other items served by restaurants.
The JAS Law and two other laws governing food labeling will be consolidated into a new law that will take effect in 2015. But it does not include regulations on meals served at restaurants.
However, if food items are described in a misleading way about their origins and quality, it could be a breach of the Unfair Competition Prevention Law.
According to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the Unfair Competition Prevention Law has seldom been applied to cases involving false menus at restaurants.
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