Investigators have raided a subsidiary of Japan's leading meat processor to collect evidence it may have illegally profited from a government programme to buy up homegrown beef potentially contaminated with mad-cow disease, a ministry official said.
Agricultural officials searched an office of Nippon Food, a subsidiary of the Osaka-based meat processing giant Nippon Meat Packers, in the western city of Himeiji, ministry official Tatsuya Haruna said.
The ministry has said it will press criminal charges against Nippon Meat Packers if the investigation shows the company abused the program.
Junji Tanaka, a senior official at the Himeiji office which was raided, said that he had ordered workers to mislabel imported meat.
"We did it because we had so much surplus stock at one point," Tanaka told reporters in a report aired by public broadcaster NHK.
News of the alleged deception by Nippon Meat Packers prompted Osaka-based Hankyu, Hanshin and Daimaru department stores and convenience store operator Family Mart to pull the company's products from shelves Thursday.
Several school districts, including in the major western city of Kobe, also announced they would stop using Nippon Meat Packers' products in school lunches.
Japan has spent millions of euros buying and incinerating domestic beef possibly tainted with the bovine brain-wasting disease known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which is believed to be linked to the fatal human variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
Two other companies have already been caught scamming the programme, which was introduced in September after authorities reported the first case of the disease in Japan the first detected outside of Europe.
Japan's sixth-largest meatpacker Snow Brand Foods has admitted abusing the government program by passing off imported beef as domestic beef. Meat processing firm Nippon Shokuhin tried to pass off 122 tons of foreign beef tendons. Both companies have since collapsed.