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Japan's food poisoning case comes to head with 2 execs quitting

Executives of Maruha Nichiro Holdings Inc. and Aqli Foods Corp. bow at a press conference in Koto Ward, Tokyo, on Saturday, following the arrest earlier in the day of an employee in connection with a frozen food contamination case.

Publication Date : 27-01-2014

 

After a month since the first report of insecticide being detected in frozen food, the case seems to have neared its end with the arrest of a suspect and the resignation of executives of the related companies.

The presidents of Maruha Nichiro Holdings Inc. and its subsidiary Aqli Foods Corp. will resign to take responsibility for the contamination of some of its frozen food following Saturday’s arrest of an employee in connection with the case.

Toshiki Abe, 49, who worked at Aqli Foods’ plant in Oizumi, Gunma Prefecture, was arrested on suspicion of obstructing business by lacing frozen foods with the insecticide malathion. He had gone missing after showing up for work January 14.

Maruha Nichiro President Toshio Kushiro and Aqli Foods President Yutaka Tanabe will step down from their posts on March 31. The salaries of Kushiro, Tanabe and six other board members of the group companies will be cut by 20 per cent to 50 per cent for a period of one to three months. The moves were announced at a press conference held at Maruha Nichiro’s headquarters in Koto Ward, Tokyo, on Saturday night.

“Although the case is ongoing, if what is suspected is true, we must express our extreme regret to have allowed a person to be engaged in a malicious criminal act within the group,” Kushiro said.

According to the Gunma prefectural police, Abe was on the plant’s pizza production line and worked on a contract basis, renewed every March and September. Abe was part of a group of usually four people who work on the crust section in which pizza dough is made and baked.

Some workers at the plant were shocked to hear of the arrest of Abe, an employee who worked there for more than eight years.

“I can’t believe he’s been arrested,” an employee at the plant said.

Although she works in a different processing section from Abe’s, she said she often saw him in the plant’s canteen and smoking room. In such places, Abe would greet others nicely, leaving the impression that he is a friendly person who has a good relationship with his colleagues, she said.

Since earlier this month, workers have been discarding the recalled products following the news that the chemical was detected in some of the frozen food.

But the woman said she had not seen him since then.

“I thought his work schedule had changed,” she said.

She added, “We’re not even allowed to bring our handkerchief or tissues inside the production area, so I have no idea how he brought the chemical inside.”

Suspect’s wife requested search

Abe was found in Satte, Saitama Prefecture, about 40 kilometres from his home in Oizumi, Gunma Prefecture, at around 8pm on Friday, according to the Gunma and Saitama prefectural police.

He had been listed missing since January 14, when his wife had asked the police to search for him.

After receiving a call from a local resident reporting a suspicious man in a parking lot who later headed north on a bicycle, police officers rushed to the site in Satte. Officers found the man riding a bicycle along National Highway Route 4 in Satte and questioned him.

The Saitama police discovered the man was Abe after inquiring with their Gunma counterparts about him. “I have a headache. I'll go back home to Gunma Prefecture by bicycle,” Abe reportedly told the officers.

After turning him over to his family in Oizumi, the Gunma prefectural police officers asked Abe to accompany them voluntarily to Ota Police Station on Saturday, where Abe was arrested.

The head of criminal investigations for the Gunma prefectural police, Masami Ogura, spoke to reporters at 6:30pm Saturday at police headquarters. He said police did not yet know where Abe had been for the 10 days he was unaccounted for. When asked what may have prompted the suspect to commit the crime and whether he had been having troubles with his company, Ogura merely said, “We will investigate those issues.”

Regarding how the suspect may have laced products at the plant with the toxic pesticide malathion, and whether Abe had the toxic substance on hand, Ogura said repeatedly, “We’re going to refrain from providing explanations” and “We don't know at this time.”

 

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