The condiment crisis of the day: The Japanese have a bitter taste in their mouths over the United States' insistence, in international regulatory negotiations, that all soy sauces are created equal.
The dispute, which has been on the table for several years, involves setting an international standard, under the auspices of a United Nations food standards program, for the manufacture and labeling of soy sauce -- that dark, piquant brew that has been used as a flavor enhancer in Japan and other Asian countries since at least A.D. 500.
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In 1998, the Japanese asked the Codex Alimentarius Commission, whose committees have "harmonized" hundreds of food standards since the 1960s, to set a standard for soy sauce that would mirror the Japanese one. They wanted to make what they thought were important distinctions between traditional soy sauce, which is brewed and fermented from soybeans, and a popular American knock-off that contains an extract of soybean or some other protein, flavor enhancers, and artificial coloring.
"It's national pride. They want their country standard to be the international standard," said Ellen Matten, international issues analyst for the U.S. Codex Office. "The Koreans came in with kimchi and got a standard."
Settling the issue is important commercially and culturally to the Japanese and the U.S. producers because labeling affects consumer perceptions about a product. The standard can have trade implications, particularly if developing nations adopt the Codex standard.
The market for Oriental sauces is growing as Asian food has become popular. Families eat more adventurously all over the world, and use of soy sauce among adults over age 25 is robust -- some consume four or more bottles a month, according to MarketResearch.com.
A.C. Nielsen reports that sales of Oriental sauces (which include soy sauce) from 2000 to 2004 increased from $153 million to $163 million. About two-thirds of domestic sales are for the more expensive, traditional varieties.
The Japanese manufacturing process, used by companies such as Kikkoman Corp., dates to the 17th century. This so-called "natural brewing" process involves blending wheat, soybeans and a mold, and letting the culture ferment for several months before refining and bottling the sauce.
This product is produced in the United States by companies such as Kikkoman, Yamasa Corp. USA and San-J International, which has a plant in Richmond.
Best known of the U.S. brands is La Choy soy sauce (though the Japanese would disagree that this is soy sauce), owned by ConAgra Foods Inc. A La Choy spokeswoman did not respond to questions on the issue.