Consumers have lot of confidence on the food industry that it does not indulge in wide scale practice of cheating and fraud compromising on the safety of the products offered in the market. The label declaration on each packed product, mandatory in almost all countries is supposed to be sufficiently transparent for the consumer to know some basic information about its contents and "date of expiry" or "best before date" printed is considered truthful, beyond which the manufacturer does not give assurance about the quality of the product. Food fraudsters operate in all countries across the world and work by exploiting loopholes in the laws or hoodwinking the safety authorities through dubious means. Added to this, inadequate vigilance infrastructure invariably hampers attempts to haul them up for deterrent punishment. It is in this context we have to note with dismay the recent reports from Japan, supposed to be one of the technological superpowers, that date expired branded meat products, intended for disposal in landfills, were found to be in the market for sales at some local areas. It appears such practices are in vogue with many manufacturers who use the loopholes in the law to reduce their losses through reuse of expired foods. Here is a take on this shocking development.
"The food industry seems especially vulnerable. We got a taste of that early in the new year when it surfaced that the Aichi Prefecture-based disposal firm Daiko, instead of dumping, as instructed, some 40,000 potentially flawed frozen beef cutlets it had received from curry restaurant chain Coco Ichibanya, quietly sold them to two local supermarkets. One of the cutlets may have contained a small contaminant, a stray bit of plastic, Coco Ichibanya feared. The attempted disposal was a well-meant safety precaution but it miscarried. Daiko is the alleged villain of the drama, but there are many others of many similar dramas, says Spa! (Feb 9-16). To read its report is to confront an uncomfortable question: What sort of refuse are we feeding ourselves? Or perhaps more to the point: What are we being fed? A note of caution seems in order. In the absence of medical testimony – Spa! presents none – the overall good health of the Japanese people might warn us against making too much of the apparent rot in the dauntingly complex distribution system that composes the national food chain. On the other hand, how tolerant should consumers be? Granted that zero tolerance would endanger an industry that provides us the convenient, cheap, instant, ready-to-eat fare we've come to depend on. Does recognizing that constitute blanket permission to jettison all standards? The Daiko affair came to light by a fluke – the disposal firm's unusual failure to repackage the Ichibanya cutlets before reselling them. Otherwise, says food industry analyst Hirokazu Kawagishi, "there is no way we'd ever have known about it."
Though industry may argue that best before date is only a rough indication about the quality of food in a packet, it could still be safe for consumption. Will the consumer by this argument? If this contention is valid, such products must be sold separately at heavily discounted prices with no guarantee about its eating quality. Then what about the safety of such products? If the manufacturer does not give assurance about its safety, there is no way consumer can be expected to buy them. Food Banks and other voluntary agencies who accept expired products from super markets for distribution to poor people usually test them for safety before supplying to the beneficiaries. Many consumers feel that packed foods must contain actual expiry date beyond which they should not be consumed. But no industry will agree to this as the current scientific data base does not provide adequate information on many products regarding their safe storage life. Probably present system of declaring best before date may be the best bet for most products till adequate information is generated regarding the safe storage life of each and every processed food. However this does not preclude individual manufacturers, sure of the data they have on safe storage of their products to declare expiry dates which will benefit the consumers a lot.