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Man arrested in massive Japanese pesticide tainting scandal

By RJ Whitehead , 29-Jan-2014

Maruha Nichiro president Toshio Kushiro (left) bows in apology at a press conference
Maruha Nichiro president Toshio Kushiro (left) bows in apology at a press conference

Japanese police have arrested the man thought to be at the centre of a food tainting scandal that has seen thousands of people poisoned and confidence in the domestic food industry at an all-time low.

The suspect was identified as Toshiki Abe, a 49-year-old contract worker at Maruha Nichiro’s Aqli Foods subsidiary, where the food, tainted with the pesticide Malathion, was found. Abe denied the charges following his arrest.

A quantity of the chemical, which local officials claimed was 2.6m times higher than the acceptable level, was found in a sample last year at the plant in Gunma prefecture. The company’s croquette, pizza, fried chicken and pancake product lines were affected.

Police sought criminal investigation

The sample contained around 26,000 parts per million of the organophosphate, which is most commonly used in farming and gardening, and police had earlier speculated that the pesticide had been deliberately used to lace the products.

As many as 2,800 consumers are thought to have been taken ill across Japan as a result of the contamination, according to local media. 

Abe is suspected of lacing the food with poison four times in October, and malathion was found in his possessions, according to Kyodo News service. Other details were not made available immediately.

Maruha has voluntarily recalled 6.4m products, although Masako Mori, state minister for consumer affairs and food safety, earlier this month had criticised company officials for being too slow in handling the matter, having taken one and a half months to launch a self-imposed recall of products after receiving a complaint in November of an unusual odour from pizza manufactured at the plant.

Manufacturer takes action

The Tokyo-based manufacturer has since announced it will cut executive pay as a result of the food poisoning, and said the company’s president, Toshio Kushiro, along with Aqli’s most senior official, would resign in March.

Maruha has repeatedly apologised to consumers since the scandal broke, and bought full-page notices in major newspapers to warn people not to eat any of its possibly tainted food.

The affair has rocked the food industry, according to an editorial in The Japan News, which also urged companies to review their safety processes.

It said: “The latest food poisoning case has shaken Japan’s sense of food safety and increased people’s distrust of food makers. [It] has also sounded an alarm bell for the entire food industry.

Companies must improve their in-house systems, including boosting monitoring of employees to make such illicit acts difficult.”

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