Health

Pesticide contamination in Japan sickens hundreds

Manufacturer Maruha Nichiro under investigation since December for alleged presence of malathion in its products

Several reports say that more than 1,000 people have been sickened across Japan after eating frozen food products that may have been tainted with a pesticide.
Shizuo Kambayashi/AP

More than 1,000 people have fallen ill in Japan after eating pesticide-contaminated frozen food produced by a company that was already under investigation for prior contamination allegations, news service Jiji Press reported Wednesday.

People have reported vomiting, diarrhea and other symptoms of food poisoning after eating products including pizza and lasagna made by a subsidiary of Maruha Nichiro Holdings, the nation's largest seafood firm.

More than 200 have fallen ill in the northern main island of Hokkaido alone, Jiji said. There have been no reports of life-threatening illnesses.

Estimates of the number of people affected vary. The Health Ministry said it had confirmed 556 people suffering such symptoms after eating those products as of late Tuesday. Public broadcaster NHK said Wednesday that its tally found 1,700 people sickened after eating the Maruha Nichiro products, while Kyodo News agency put the number at 1,400.

In a notice on its website, the Health Ministry ordered the manufacturer to recall all potentially affected products and to be forthright in informing the public about the situation.

While food scares do happen in Japan — cabbage riddled with E. coli killed seven people and sickened dozens in August 2012 — standards are relatively high.

However, the country's much-vaunted reputation for safe and high-quality food has been badly affected by the Fukushima atomic disaster, which saw acres of farmland polluted by nuclear fallout. Many countries now restrict agricultural imports from the area.

Police began investigating Maruha Nichiro last month after it revealed that some of its frozen food had been tainted with malathion, an agricultural chemical often used to kill aphids in corn and rice fields.

Detectives are looking at the possibility that the pesticide was deliberately added to the food at some stage of production at a factory in Gunma, north of Tokyo, Jiji said.

As of Wednesday, Maruha Nichiro had received hundreds of thousands of phone calls from consumers in connection with the incident, including complaints from customers who had eaten tainted products and some reporting unusual odors, a company spokeswoman said.

The food maker has recalled 6.4 million potentially tainted products, with 1.5 million packages recovered so far, she said. None of the products in question had been shipped overseas.

Wire services

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