Police investigation on E. coli deaths in Japan; still missing the point about risks of raw beef

In another example of Japan’s rapid response to food safety issues, the health ministry says it plans to begin imposing new penalties for food safety violations as early as October … as current guidelines are nonbinding.

The agriculture ministry urged restaurants to ensure the trimming of all raw meat and to remind customers of the higher risks of food poisoning for children and the elderly.

Foods Forus Co., operator of the Yakiniku-zakaya Ebisu restaurant chain — four customers of which died after eating raw beef dishes at its outlets — admitted Tuesday to having taken a lax attitude toward food safety and that it had stopped trimming meat to remove surface bacteria at its restaurants since July 2009, despite being aware of government guidelines to do so.

”We thought the meat had already been trimmed (at Yamatoya Shoten) and that it was alright” to skip the step at the restaurants, a Foods Forus executive told Kyodo News. ”We were careless regarding food safety.”

Police have questioned the president of Tokyo-based meat supplier Yamatoya Shoten and The Yomiuri Shimbun has learned Yamatoya sold meat it claimed was wagyu to Yakiniku-zakaya Ebisu but the meat also contained other kinds of beef.

Wagyu comes from native Japanese breeds of beef cattle, such as Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Polled and Japanese Shorthorn, or crosses of such breeds.

However, the ID number of the carcass from which the beef in question was taken showed the animal was raised by a dairy farmer in Fukushima Prefecture.
According to the farmer, "If the meat was sold as wagyu beef, it’s fraudulent labeling."

Yamatoya Shoten removed bones and fat from the meat, divided it into small portions, sterilized it with alcohol and sealed it in vacuum packs, according to the sources. It was then shipped directly to Yakiniku-zakaya Ebisu outlets, they said.

The police said they plan to investigate the processes used in distributing the meat and whether proper hygiene was maintained.