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Saké industry threatened by toxic rice

Japan’s saké industry is facing a serious consumer scare with the discovery of contaminated rice used in the production of its rice based alcholic beverages.

In the past week, more than 1m bottles of saké and the distilled, rice-based spirit, ‘shochu’ have been recalled following news of tainted rice shipments – destined for use in glue factories – finding their way to Japanese-based breweries and distillers.

On Friday the Kyoto city government announced the toxic pesticide methamidophos had been detected at twice the permitted level in sticky rice produced by Osaka-based miller, Mikasa Foods. This had already been sold to a local nursery and nursing centre in Kyoto, among others.

The rice, thought to have been imported from China or Vietnam, found its way into the Japanese food industries through selling and reselling by producers and wholesalers – finally ending up at a number of beverage producers.

Japanese brewer Asahi has recalled 650,000 bottles of its shochu, while producer Nishi Shuzo has disposed of 1.17m bottles with a value of more than Yen400m (€2.7m).

The saké industry is already facing tough market conditions, with sales falling steadily. According to finance industry figures, consumption has fallen every year since 1995 to a record low of 700,000 kilolitres in 2006.

Today, the Japanese consume only a third as much sake as they did 30 years ago, with the population increasingly favouring imported beers and wine.

At the same time, sake consumption is on the rise overseas, benefiting from the global popularity of Japanese food.

Exports rose to a record high of 11,334 kilolitres last year, up from 7,051 in 2001. A third goes to the US, followed by Taiwan, Hong Kong and, more recently, China.

Sales of sake in the UK have more than doubled in the past two years and are now worth well over £2m per annum.

Written by Hazel Macrae

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