The latest food scandal involving Snow Brand Milk Products hit this weekend after Japan's biggest dairy company said it had altered expiry dates on butter.
Snow Brand Milk managing director Hideki Takenouchi appeared at the firm's headquarters on the northern island of Hokkaido, bowing deeply at a news conference to apologise for the latest embarrassment to the company.
His appearance came just a day after Snow Brand Milk revealed that it would liquidate its scandal-tarnished meat-packing unit, Snow Brand Food, amid widespread public anger at mislabelling after mad cow disease came to light in Japan.
Snow Brand Milk said it would shut the unit by late April and the move has fuelled jitters about the parent company's financial health, with investors worried about a possible default by Snow Brand Milk on its debt.
In the latest controversy, the Health Ministry ordered Snow Brand Milk to improve its standards on freshness dates after it was found to have extended the expiry dates on 760 tonnes of frozen butter and used it as an ingredient in making processed milk and ice cream.
Hit by excessive inventories following a food-poisoning scandal in the summer of 2000, Snow Brand Milk decided in March last year to extend the expiry dates on 2,300 tonnes of frozen butter that had aged beyond the 18-month limit, Kyodo news agency said.
The butter was collected at a factory in Betsukai on northern Hokkaido and Snow Brand extended the expiry dates by a year after confirming the butter was safe to consume, Kyodo said.
The re-writing of the expiry dates came to light after Snow Brand Milk in late January informed a public health centre near the Betsukai factory after the meat mislabelling scandal erupted.
But Snow Brand said it had reviewed the expiry dates after confirming that the quality of butter could be maintained for seven years when stored below a certain temperature.
"There is no problem related to quality or food sanitation laws since the butter was stored at temperatures below minus 18 degrees Celsius (minus 64 Fahrenheit)," the company said.
The scandal was further complicated by the vagueness of laws governing expiry dates.
"The extension of expiry dates is not illegal nor is it problematic from the standpoint of safety," the Mainichi Shimbun daily quoted a Hokkaido prefecture official as saying.
"But we told them to stop since it could lead to misunderstanding," he was quoted as saying.
Snow Brand Food, which is 65 percent owned by Snow Brand Milk, became the target of public outrage after it said it had deliberately mislabelled beef to pocket government subsidies aimed at helping the industry following an outbreak of mad cow disease in Japan.