Japan Sales of ‘Functional’ Foods Drops

Consumers in Japan are shying away from dietary supplements and other so-called functional foods over a health scare linked to red yeast rice products from Kobayashi Pharmaceutical.

Other supplement producers are rushing to assure customers that their offerings are safe. But restoring trust in the industry will not be easy, especially given criticism that Japan lacks rigorous measures to secure the safety of supplements.

Five people have died and over 100 have been hospitalized after taking Kobayashi products containing red yeast rice, called beni koji in Japan. A recall of the products has been issued.

The Consumer Affairs Agency has asked roughly 1,700 manufacturers of similar products — categorized by the government as kinosei hyoji shokuhin, or foods claimed to be “functional” — whether they have received reports of health issues and if they have systems for collecting such data. The survey, which respondents were asked to return by Friday, will provide the agency with feedback for followup measures at a time of growing consumer worries about taking any functional food product, not just Kobayashi’s.

Sales figures for about 860 foods with functional claims were compiled using retail data collection system Nikkei POS. Weekly sales per 1,000 shoppers were gathered from supermarkets nationwide.

Sales of foods labeled as functional, including beverages, dipped 11% on the year in the week of April 1. Demand had lost steam earlier this year as prices rose, but the decline was milder, at 6.7% for the week of March 11. The decrease accelerated to 10.4% in the week of March 18, during which Kobayashi announced a recall of its red yeast rice items. The slide has remained around 10% since.

“I used to actively buy [foods with functional claims], but now I’m a bit concerned so I haven’t bought those lately,” shopper Mai Yoshida said at a drugstore in Tokyo.

Such anxiety is rocking the industry. Cosmetics and supplements producer Fancl reported a temporary tenfold jump in cancellations of subscriptions to its mainstay supplement claimed to lower cholesterol. This product does not contain red yeast rice from Kobayashi as an ingredient.

Seeking to reassure consumers, Fancl started posting messages on sales floors at stores emphasizing the quality and safety of its product. The company’s online shopping page for the product also states that the supplement is safe.

Online cosmetics and supplements retailer DHC has received about 12,000 inquiries after Kobayashi’s announcement. At DHC’s bricks-and-mortar shops, salespeople are handing out flyers stressing the safety of its products. Asahi Group Foods, which offers a supplement series under the brand Dear-Natura, also sees more cancellations tied to online shopping.

“Manufacturers may be recording sales declines of 20% to 30%,” said a spokesperson at the Japan Direct Marketing Association, whose members include makers of foods with functional labels.

Foods with functional claims were introduced in 2015 as a low-cost alternative to the classification of tokuho, or foods with special health qualities, which requires government screenings.

The new category was designed to make it easier for smaller companies to offer value-added foods. All they need is to file evidence of efficacy. The new classification also was intended to stimulate the food industry as a whole amid broad deregulation initiatives pushed by then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The market for foods with functional claims grew 19% to an estimated 686.5 billion yen ($4.48 billion at current rates) in 2023 and is projected to reach 777 billion yen in 2026, research firm Fuji Keizai reports. The market surpassed that for tokuho foods in 2020 and offers 7,000 products, compared with the tokuho lineup of 1,000.

Unlike pharmaceutical products, foods with functional labels do not need to be managed under Japan’s Good Manufacturing Practice regulations. This means no oversight exists on matters including manufacturing method, ingredients or concentration, as well as what form a product comes in — such as pills or capsules.

Outside of Japan, products comparable to foods with functional claims are regulated more strictly. In the U.S., dietary supplements are defined as products intended to supplement the diet, which may come in many forms such as capsules and powders. A separate regulatory framework exists for dietary supplements, and manufacturers are required to comply with production and quality control standards.

The European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have even tougher rules.

“In some countries, manufacturers are required to promptly report issues, and Japan is clearly behind in this regard as well,” said Hideko Ikeda, head of the Japanese Institute for Health Food Standards. (Source: asia.nikkei.com)

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