Where's the beef from?

February 16, 2002 The Daily Yomiuri (Tokyo)
The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry has set up a task force charged with improving the food-labeling system.

The recent Snow Brand Foods Co. meat-switching scandal has turned out to go much deeper than originally presumed. First, the firm was found to have repackaged unsold imported beef as domestically produced beef, in hopes of getting the government to buy it up amid the spreading mad cow disease panic. Then it was learned that the company was up to similar shenanigans with domestic beef and pork--relabeling these products to falsely indicate their place of origin. The company's conduct is inexcusable in that it has seriously eroded public trust in the food-labeling system. Many consumers are concerned that Snow Brand Foods may not be alone in this regard. The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry had every reason to decide that it should reexamine the food-labeling system.

The ministry overlooked one critical task in its attempts to throw cold water on the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) panic--that is, thinking about how to protect consumers. We believe the ministry must take the lesson of this oversight to heart in its efforts to revamp the food-labeling system. If it fails to do so, the ministry never will be able to regain public trust in the system.

The critical question is whether proper steps have been taken to inspect the labeling of perishable foods under the Japanese Agricultural Standards (JAS) Law, which requires producers to ensure that labels mention place of origin.

The ministry and other related bodies occasionally visit stores to inspect them for compliance with the law. Inspectors, however, focus on whether labels on products at the stores comply with the legally stipulated format. They have no time to check whether the food products match the descriptions on their labels.

We therefore would like to see the ministry take measures to make food label inspection procedures more appropriate and effective. To root out false labeling, the ministry also should stiffen penalties for serious offenders, for example, punishing them by publicizing their names.

These measures should be complemented with efforts toward the implementation of the Food Sanitation Law, which is under the jurisdiction of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. The law incorporates a separate set of standards for labels indicating additives and contents. Uncoordinated bureaucracies

The two ministries must cooperate in ensuring that JAS and Food Sanitation Law standards coordinate each other in terms of what kind of information should be provided by labels in what form.

To ensure food safety, the government must establish a system under which product safety is ensured at all stages--from farm to dinner table. Appropriate quality labeling constitutes only one pillar of such a system.

The government's efforts to end the BSE panic were hampered by the lack of coordination between the agricultural ministry--the body that oversees dairy farmers in controlling the heath of cattle--and the health ministry--the institution responsible for inspecting meat-processing facilities. The lack of bureaucratic coordination has been blocking the goal of establishing a system that would guarantee the safety of food production and distribution.

A sole enforcer

Since the outbreak of BSE in their nations, the British, German and French governments have worked to ensure that just one body is responsible for devising and implementing food-safety policies.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has told the Diet that he does not take the current system as a given and is prepared to undertake structural reform of the farm and health ministries.

We hope that the government will give serious thought to that goal. Before anything else, the government must think of the best way to establish a desirable system.

Some Liberal Democratic Party members are seeking to make the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry the sole organ charged with protecting food safety. However, this should not allow the ministry to become even more powerful at a time when its sympathies seem to lie more with producers than consumers.

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