A food scare is causing havoc in Japan, where hundreds of people have fallen ill over the past week after eating dumplings made in China, or gyoza, as they are known. Japanese officials have now gone to China to investigate. Beijing has called on all concerned to remain calm.
Japanese schools have taken Chinese-made food off the menu at lunchtime
What started off as a suspected case of unhygienic food is rapidly turning into a case of suspected and deliberate food poisoning. The Japanese Health Minister is now talking openly about the possibility of a crime having been committed, while the media have mentioned unconfirmed police reports that the poisoning had taken place in China itself.
However, investigators have not yet identified the source of the contamination.
Since December 2007, almost 4,000 people in Japan have complained about feeling sick since eating the Chinese-made dumplings. 10 people -- including a five-year-old girl -- have received hospital treatment, after being diagnosed with pesticide poisoning.
As a result, schools and restaurants have removed Chinese-made food from their menus. The media have spread further alarm by warning people not to eat food from China.
China is still in denial with food officials insisting that sample tests on two batches of frozen dumplings, ingredients and packaging, produced at China’s Tyanyang Food Processing Company have not revealed any pesticide.
Nevertheless, the company has been ordered to halt production and recall all exports, which go mostly to Japan.
Japan is not convinced this is enough and is reportedly considering posting a food safety specialist to the Japanese embassy in Beijing on a permanent basis. China is Japan’s largest trading partner and the second biggest supplier of imported food.
Close Sino-Japanese co-operation
Meanwhile, Japanese police -- under mounting public pressure -- have called for close co-operation with their Chinese counterparts. They have also promised to find out how the dumplings were poisoned as soon as possible.
A top government official has taken a thinly-disguised swipe at the Health Minister by pointing out there should be no careless talk about criminality before the facts became clear.
Tokyo is worried the food scare could damage Sino-Japanese relations, which are already rather strained not least because of unresolved issues going back to the Second World War.
The recently-appointed Japanese Prime Minister, Yasuo Fukuda, has often expressed his wish to bring about a thaw in bilateral relations between Japan and China but the dumplings scandal is threatening progress in this field. He is already under fire at home for his delay in alerting the public about the contaminated food.
Appeal for calm
Beijing has also appealed for calm. In the run-up to the August Olympic Games in Beijing, the Chinese authorities are trying to reassure the international community that only approved firms will be given contracts to supply food during the event. It has also promised to set up a centre to deal with any food-related issues at the Games.
But China is not the only source of contaminated food in Japan. There has been a string of domestic food scandals in recent months -- including the sale of mislabelled meat and out-of-date sweets and biscuits.
Japanese consumers were dismayed by these food scandals, especially as many had been led to believe Japanese-made products were safer than imported products and therefore worth paying more for.
The Chinese dumpling scandal might well bring about a welcome boost to the tainted image of Japanese products.