Food snobs and consumer groups here and in Japan consider non-brewed soy sauce an impostor since it contains caramel color, corn syrup, salt and what is called hydrolyzed soy (or some other protein), in which the protein is reduced to an amino acid to create what is essentially a flavor enhancer.
The Japanese labeling proposal has not gone down smoothly with the International Hydrolyzed Protein Council, whose members make and supply the basic ingredient for the U.S.-made competitor. "These products have been manufactured here and around the world for decades and sold as soy sauce, and there have been no complaints from consumers," said Martin J. Hahn, executive director of the trade group and a partner at Hogan & Hartson LLP.
The industry group filed comments with the U.S. Department of Agriculture this summer saying that "inclusion of production-specific information" should be voluntary. This means U.S. producers could stick with calling their product soy sauce and the traditionalists could call their product "brewed."
Originally, the Japanese were against calling any product soy sauce if it didn't use the traditional ingredients and manufacturing process. Now, the delegations to the meeting of the Codex Committee on Processed Fruits and Vegetables, which will be held next week in Alexandria, will consider a proposal put forth by Japan and Korea. It would allow use of the words "soy sauce," but with modifiers that would tell consumers which soy sauce is "naturally brewed" (the real stuff) and which is "non-brewed" (the substitutes).
The U.S. delegation to the talks, which is led by the Agriculture Department, does not support a mandatory standard. Its position is that labeling that includes qualifiers such as brewed and non-brewed should be left up to each country, according to comments submitted for the upcoming talks. "The name of the product should be 'Soy Sauce' for all varieties," the comments said.
American and Japanese consumer groups worry that buyers would be duped into thinking all soy sauces are the same if the United States prevails.
"We are concerned that the world trading system . . . is being used to downgrade consumer protection standards worldwide," said Bruce Silverglade, director of legal affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group. "This issue represents a good place to draw a line in the sand -- what can be more absurd than the U.S. telling Japan that soy sauce doesn't need to be made from soybeans? Next we'll be telling the French that Spam should be labeled as pâté."
The substitutes "are just a black-color sauce with a lot of food additives," said Natsuko Kumasawa, international project manager with the Japan Offspring Fund, a consumer group in Tokyo that opposes allowing "fake" soy sauce to be called soy sauce.
Silverglade said the onus should be on "soy sauce wannabes" to disclose that they are not the real thing, not the other way around.
Any decision on soy sauce is likely to take much longer than it takes to ferment a vat of the stuff. Under the Codex process, there are eight steps to approving a standard, and this one is in the early stages.