They're calling it a soy sauce smackdown, an international bout that's brewing over one of the world's most popular condiments.
In one corner, led by the Japanese, are the soy sauce traditionalists. They insist that the world needs better labels so consumers can tell when they're buying sauce made from a centuries-old method of fermenting soybeans.
In the other corner, led by the United States, are supporters of a kind of soy sauce that's not made from soybeans at all. These soy sauce makers rely on a quicker recipe that combines hydrolyzed vegetable protein, caramel coloring and corn syrup. It's the kind of soy sauce much of middle America grew up on, sprinkling their canned chop suey with brands like La Choy, whose slogan is "America's taste of Asia since 1920."
But the international labeling flap is not your regular condiment conundrum:
It could be a new front line in the ever-escalating war over the globalization of the food supply by big -- and often American -- producers.
"It's something to tell Japan how to make soy sauce. Next we'll be telling France that Spam should be labeled pate," said Bruce Silverglade, legal affairs director of Center for Science in the Public Interest based in Washington, D.C. He is working with consumer groups in Japan that are fighting for the new labeling rules. "It's another example of the 'McDonald-ization' of the global food supply," he said.
Although the rhetoric is hot, the actual arena for the smackdown is an obscure, cumbersome but powerful international food trade regulator called the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which was created in 1962 by two U.N. organizations. The agency's job essentially is to make sure everybody importing and exporting food follows roughly the same standards.
The Codex committee in charge of soy sauce will meet in late September in San Antonio, where they will consider the issue between discussions about canned stone fruit, dried edible fungus and marmalade.
Here's how the soy sauce smackdown started:
A few years ago, officials in Japan proposed that only naturally brewed products be allowed to use the term "soy sauce" in international trade. Products that use the quicker hydrolyzed vegetable protein method should bear the words "nonbrewed" or "short-term brewed," they argued. Traditional manufacturers would be allowed to label their product "brewed" if they wanted to.
The idea got support from South Korea, whose Codex delegate is helping Japan write the new rules. And it also gained popular support from Japanese consumer groups, which was a surprise.
"Almost all the time, we have been critical of our own government. This is a very rare exception," said Natsuko Kumasawa, a manager with a consumer advocate group based in Tokyo called the Japan Offspring Fund.
"We don't want to call fake soy sauce with a same name," he said in an e- mail. "I believe Americans are proud of Coca-Cola. If Japanese industries sell a black-colored drink named 'Cola,' and if the taste of 'Cola' is totally different from the original American one, I am sure Americans will feel strange, or mad."
The proposal didn't sit well with some U.S. soy sauce producers. Or, naturally, with the International Hydrolyzed Protein Council. Its representatives believe Japan's proposal is a clear case of discrimination.
Food Chemical News, a trade publication that proudly calls itself "the world's oldest and most respected publication on food regulations," is all over the soy sauce issue. It recently reported that the United States will challenge Japan's proposal when Codex meets on Sept. 23.
"All we want is for the standard for soy sauce to be all-inclusive," said Dorian LaFond, the U.S. delegate to Codex, earlier this week. "We have people who make naturally brewed and the hydrolized. We just have to make sure that the production is safe and compatible, that's all."
The battle to change soy labeling rules promises to be a long one because the governing body meets infrequently and because the process can take years.
The rules won't affect American-made brands that aren't exported, although Codex food definitions sometimes become part of arguments used to persuade the Food and Drug Administration to alter domestic food laws and labels.
Still, in the United States, where some estimates put the per capita consumption rate of soy sauce at almost three cups a year, there's a lot at stake.
Leaders of Slow Food, a 60,000-member international organization dedicated to the preservation of traditional food products and methods, say it's about consumer rights.
"There needs to be some kind of label for consumers to trace original products and ingredients so people who are seeking out quality can get it," said Patrick Martins, the executive director of Slow Food USA in New York, which has 10 chapters in Northern California. The national board is meeting in Berkeley this weekend, where the splendid little soy sauce war will no doubt be discussed.
"Calling something 'soy sauce' when it is not brewed is a very ingenuous way that big industry is trying to put itself on the same plane as artisan producers," Martins said.
In the meantime, things won't change much at the Folsom fermenting facilities for Kikkoman, a Japanese company with international offices in San Francisco. Kikkoman began brewing soy sauce in Japan in the 1600s, but the company never had to worry about brewed versus nonbrewed until it began fermenting soybeans in the United States in 1972.
Thirty years ago, nonbrewed soy sauce was America's favorite. Kikkoman's sales trailed behind the best-seller La Choy and also Chun King.
Today, according to Elaine Beatson, manager of consumer affairs and public relations, Kikkoman is by far the nation's top seller -- something a trip down the aisle at any Bay Area Asian or Western-style supermarket will show. La Choy and Chun King brands, both owned by ConAgra Foods, are harder to find.
"It's been a long haul for us," Beatson said. "We've
done research and focus groups and talked about what naturally brewed
means to people, and they think all soy sauce is naturally brewed."
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