MINAMI-ISE, Mie Prefecture--The wholesale price of “ise-ebi” Japanese spiny lobsters is soaring following the recent string of food mislabeling scandals involving cheaper ingredients touted as prized products.
Ninety percent of lobsters sold as ise-ebi in Japan are actually imports, meaning that department stores and other companies in the service industry are now scrambling to obtain the relatively few “genuine” ise-ebi caught in Japan.
The coveted crustaceans are a key ingredient for luxury dinners and fancy traditional “osechi” New Year’s feast packages.
The market rate for the lobsters was slightly less than 5,000 yen ($50) per kilogram in late October.
But in early November, department stores, hotels and restaurants around Japan admitted to mislabeling their menus. Expensive prawn dishes actually contained cheaper shrimp. And some menus advertised genuine ise-ebi lobsters, but they were, in fact, imports.
The price for the lobsters soared to 6,000 yen per kilogram on Nov. 10 and surged to nearly 8,000 yen on Nov. 15.
In just one day, the wholesale price of ise-ebi jumped by 500 yen per kilogram on Nov. 14 at an auction held near a fishing port in Minami-Ise, a town known for trading in the lobsters.
“It is an abnormal situation,” said Kazuhiro Yamamoto, a 66-year-old fish dealer.
The 100 kilograms of lobsters on the block were sold in just six minutes.
According to a wholesaler in the prefecture, the domestic catch of the lobsters is too small to meet demand in the country. For that reason, it has been a standard practice among Japanese wholesalers to trade imports as ise-ebi since they were first brought in about 40 years ago.
However, the rising price does not necessarily mean a bonanza for wholesalers.
Yamamoto said he cannot pass on the entire bloated price to customers.
“So a jump in the price will be good news only for fishermen,” he said.
Takamitsu Hamaguchi, who runs a Japanese inn with special dinners in Minami-Ise, also said he will not increase the inn’s prices to reflect the surge in wholesale prices.
“People who have been doing an honest business are also being affected,” said Hamaguchi, who said he has always offered genuine ise-ebi.
After the scandal broke, a wholesaler in the Tokai region said his clients canceled orders for overseas lobsters and flooded him with new orders for authentic ise-ebi caught in Japan.
“Big-name department stores are buying up all the ise-ebi to secure for their offerings of osechi New Year’s packages,” he said.
With more inquiries coming in from Tokyo, the wholesaler said it is just a “matter of time” for the price to hit 10,000 yen per kilogram.
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