Health authorities probe Fujiya cake plant suspected of using old milk, eggs

Health authorities investigated a Fujiya cake factory Wednesday suspected of using old milk in cream puffs and other confections as public outrage grew about sloppy sanitation standards at the popular Japanese confectioner.

Earlier this week, Fujiya Co.'s president announced his resignation after acknowledging that a company probe found old ingredients, including milk, cream, eggs, blueberry jam and apple filling, had been repeatedly used in products.

Japanese media coverage has been dominated by the unfolding scandal at Fujiya, a prestigious chain founded in 1910 and famous for its "Peko-chan" smiling girl mascot.

The scandal is the latest in a series of quality-control fiascos at the nation's top brands in recent years. Cover-ups of defects at Mitsubishi Motors Corp. and food-poisoning at Snow Brand Milk Products Co. are raising serious questions about corporate ethics and the adequacy of systematic checks on wrongdoing.

Fujiya too has acknowledged there was a systematic cover-up, infuriating the public who learned about the case in Japanese media reports earlier this month. Many suspect the company held off on going public with the finding because of the critical Christmas shopping season, during which Japanese buy fancy "Christmas cakes" at bakeries like Fujiya.

So far, there have been no reported cases of people getting ill from the products.

But in the latest twist, Fujiya said Wednesday that it had not gone public with a 1995 food poisoning case that sickened nine people who ate custard-filled cakes tainted with bacteria, company spokesman Fumio Shimada said.

In that incident, the cakes caused stomachaches and diarrhea, he said. The company reported the food-poisoning to local authorities, who orderded the plant closed for two days, but didn't otherwise go public.

"We realize our understanding of the importance about food safety wasn't adequate," Shimada said. "This cannot happen again."

In the current scandal, Fujiya said it found out about the use of old milk in November, when a company team trying to revive the money-losing cake business visited a plant in Saitama prefecture (state), just north of Tokyo, a different factory than the Osaka factory in the 1995 incident.

Tetsuhiko Shinomiya, a Saitama prefectural official, said a team of inspectors are at the Saitama plant to investigate. The team demanded a report from the factory last week after media reports uncovered the use of old milk, he said. The plant submitted the report Tuesday.

Under Japanese law, a manufacturer can be ordered shut down if it is found to have seriously violated sanitation laws, reports AP.

Japan's top business daily The Nikkei lambasted Fujiya, saying it had not learned from past scandals, and demanded full disclosure.

"We are shocked by the shoddy practices," an editorial said in Wednesday's editions. "Consumers are bound to hand down a tough verdict on the company if Fujiya continues to be so untruthful."

Although expired ingredients have been found in only Fujiya's baked goods, major Japanese retailers have swiftly removed Fujiya's other products, including candy and chocolate, from their stores

The franchise's cake stores, numbering about 800 nationwide, have been closed since last week.