TOKYO, May 10 (Kyodo) — Police have questioned the president of Tokyo-based meat supplier Yamatoya Shoten as part of their investigation into a recent spate of raw-beef poisoning deaths linked to a "yakiniku" barbecue restaurant chain, investigative sources said Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the health ministry said the same day it plans to begin imposing new penalties for food safety violations as early as October in light of the E. coli food poisoning cases, to press eateries to step up sanitary control measures, as current guidelines are nonbinding.
The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare also notified local municipalities to instruct restaurants serving raw meat dishes to specify in their menus where the trimming process was conducted, in the hope of easing consumer concerns. Similarly, the agriculture ministry urged restaurants to ensure the trimming of all raw meat and to remind customers of the higher risks of food poisoning for children and the elderly.
Foods Forus Co., operator of the Yakiniku-zakaya Ebisu restaurant chain -- four customers of which died after eating raw beef dishes at its outlets -- admitted Tuesday to having taken a lax attitude toward food safety and that it had stopped trimming meat to remove surface bacteria at its restaurants since July 2009, despite being aware of government guidelines to do so.
"We thought the meat had already been trimmed (at Yamatoya Shoten) and that it was alright" to skip the step at the restaurants, a Foods Forus executive told Kyodo News. "We were careless regarding food safety."
Foods Forus revised its in-house rules in July 2009 to omit the trimming procedure after Yamatoya Shoten sent it an e-mail in May that year indicating that beef to be shipped need not be trimmed at the restaurant outlets, said the senior official, who asked not to be named.
The company had also stopped conducting voluntary bacteria checks since it began procuring meat from Yamatoya Shoten.
In a contradicting claim, the meat distributor has told Tokyo local health officials that the beef had not been pre-trimmed and was not supplied to be consumed raw.
Sanitary standards issued by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in 1998 call on both meat processors and eateries to remove surface areas of uncooked meat, which can easily be contaminated with bacteria, to prevent food poisoning should it be served raw.
But the current guidelines have no binding power and carry no penalties, even if the standards are not fulfilled.
The ministry said earlier the envisioned penalties will include suspending businesses of those that fail to meet the requirement and up to two years in prison or 2 million in fines for serious offenses.