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.
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.
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 pate."
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.