News | July 7, 2000

Snow Brand Admits Withholding Contamination Info

Japan's biggest dairy processor, responsible for a lowfat milk food-poisoning epidemic affecting thousands, has admitted it withheld contamination-related information from authorities and the public.

Snow Brand Milk Products Co. also has announced that in addition to the contaminated milk products, a yogurt drink it manufactures is tainted.

Company officials revealed July 7 that a toxin produced by Staphylococcus aureus bacteria was discovered in a sample of a 1-liter yogurt drink made at the processor's Osaka plant, the site where a contaminated tank valve is the suspected culprit in provoking the current incident.

Japanese authorities said 12,928 people have become ill since June 29 after consuming Snow Brand products. Individuals have reported various symptoms after ingesting the products, including nausea, diarrhea and stomach pain.

Most people affected say they fell ill after consuming the company's lowfat milk product, but others reported becoming sick after drinking two brands of its calcium-enriched lowfat milk. In one school, several kindergartners who consumed ice cream made from the milk reported becoming ill. Many individuals have been hospitalized.

The epidemic might prove the nation's largest food-poisoning incident since official record-keeping began in 1975, Japanese authorities said.

Snow Brand officials admitted that though at least two types of toxin-producing bacteria had been discovered on the Osaka plant's production line late last month, they chose to only announce the detection of one variety, Kyodo News reported.

A company official stated at a press conference that Snow Brand leaders believed only Staphylococcus aureus was to blame for the epidemic and decided not to reveal the presence of bacillus cereus, partly because levels detected were small compared to the other bacteria.

But health authorities indicated that food-poisoning victims are displaying differing symptoms, evidence that both bacteria probably are responsible for the illness outbreak.

Snow Brand leaders said colon bacillus also was discovered at the Osaka plant. However, it's unknown if the bacteria can provoke illness.

In addition to ordering the Osaka site closed, Japanese authorities also directed the company to shut down a milk-holding tank at its Hino plant after employees failed to produce sufficient cleaning records for the site.

Several cities, including Tokyo, have halted using the company's products. In a long-term move, Osaka leaders announced they're banning students from consuming products made at Snow Brand's Osaka facility during school lunches for a minimum of two years. Tokyo officials this week issued an order prohibiting municipalities from using products made at the Hino plant for school lunches.

Numerous retailers also have stopped selling Snow Brand's milk and other products.

Japan's Health and Welfare Ministry currently is inspecting roughly 860 Snow Brand and other company dairy facilities nationwide.

Snow Brand's bottom line is predicted to nosedive as a result of the incident, company leaders revealed.

The corporation's president announced July 6 he's taking responsibility for the calamity by resigning. In addition, two of the company's senior managing directors and a director are stepping down. (See related article).

Snow Brand announced it's withdrawing from a proposed joint venture with two other Japanese companies to produce coffee drinks, Bloomberg News reported, though Japan Tobacco Inc. and Key Coffee Inc. plan to continue pursuing the effort. The three were scheduled to start selling the product this fall.

Edited by Gerry Clark