Govt should support consumers, not farmers

February 16, 2002 The Daily Yomiuri (Tokyo)
In September last year the nation's first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, was confirmed.

Despite early indications of the danger of the disease, the government failed to devise measures to keep it from spreading.

Politicians and bureaucrats' hands-off attitude and ignorance of the seriousness of the situation served to aggravate the problem.

The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry showed a lack of sense of crisis in June when it refused to accept the nation's position on a list compiled by the European Union of countries susceptible to mad cow disease. Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tsutomu Takebe reportedly consented readily when ministry officials told him they would use different criteria to determine the possibility of an outbreak of the mad cow disease, because their talks with EU officials had led them to conclude that the EU list was not necessary.

Takebe was not informed by ministry officials that Japan was ranked on the second level of four levels of risk on the EU list.

When it was discovered from British records in late 2000 that feed believed to be the source of BSE had been exported to Japan, the then agriculture minister was not informed, based on the judgment of a bureau chief. The chief apparently thought that if domestic cattle were at risk of contracting mad cow disease, it would deal a heavy blow to breeders.

The aftermath of the outbreak of the mad cow disease brought the cover-up to light.

This is a vivid reminder of the former Health and Welfare Ministry, whose hands-off attitude resulted in the AIDS deaths of hemophiliacs after they were given unheated blood products.

Takebe, who is the highest ranking government official responsible for agricultural policies, is as guilty as the ministry officials.

In addition to being unaware of the EU warning, Takebe told dairy farmers in Hokkaido in December that, regarding beef safety, the source of the infection and the route it had traveled were not of much importance.

Like ministry officials, Takebe also placed the interests farmers over those of consumers.

Cabinet ministers should keep in mind national interest in steeling and supervising bureaucrats.

Takebe cannot shirk his responsibility as agriculture minister in dealing with mad cow disease, because as a Liberal Democratic Party executive said, Takebe only did what he had been told by ministry officials. Politics trumped public interest

Agriculture ministry policies are inseparable from politics.

Lawmakers secure budgets for farmers and the industry in return for votes and political funds.

Former ministry officials won elections in the proportional section of the House of Councillors on the strength of support of farmers and the industry.

Given that backdrop, it is a matter of course that the ministry and lawmakers representing the interests of the agricultural sector give priority to farmers over consumers.

After three cows were confirmed to have contracted mad cow disease, legislators allied with the agricultural sector tried to gain public understanding for farmers, threatening to release cattle on the lawn of the prime minister's official residence or scatter hunks of beef around the area.

In late January, Hisao Horinouchi, head of the LDP's anti-BSE committee, turned down a proposal by the ministry that the government pay 20,000 yen per head for aging and unproductive dairy cattle, who had a high possibility of contracting mad cow disease.

The ministry initially planned to provide about 1.1 billion yen in assistance, including coverage for feed expenses, to buy aging and unproductive cattle, but was forced to pay 40,000 yen for each cow worth only several thousand yen at market.

The government used about 20 billion yen, including funds previously set aside to buy aging cattle, to buy aging and unproductive dairy cattle, on top of a total of 170 billion yen had been earmarked in the first and second supplementary budgets of the current fiscal year to deal with the outbreak.

House of Representatives member Kenji Yamaoka of Jiyuto (Liberal Party), speaking at the lower house Budget Committee meeting on Jan. 13, criticized legislators allied with the agricultural sector for grabbing an extra 20 billion yen from the state coffers.

The ministry and legislators said to belong to the so-called agricultural tribe exerted influence to assist the rebuilding of Snow Brand Milk Products Co., the parent company of Snow Brand Foods Co., which was involved in illegal meat packaging.

At a meeting of the LDP's Agriculture and Forestry Division held on Jan. 6, lawmakers of the agricultural block repeatedly warned that Japanese dairy farmers would be driven out of business if foreign capital entered the agricultural sector.

Kikuhito Sugata, head of the Agriculture Production Bureau, said that the ministry had already asked Snow Brand Milk to continue using dairy products from domestic farmers.

Former Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobuo Ishihara said that while the ministry was sensitive to farmers' problems, it is not concerned about consumers' problems because consumers are not under its jurisdiction.

Fearing the mad cow outbreak would significantly impact farmers, the ministry was forestalled in every attempt to assist consumers, resulting in a decline in beef purchases that really left farmers hurting.

The illegal meat labeling debacle by Snow Brand Foods has accelerated the crumbling of the public's belief that domestic beef is safe. It is high time to shift agricultural policies centering on farmers to focus on the needs of consumers.

It is also time to drastically review the system under which ministry officials focus on only farmers and the agricultural industry, and politicians use their influence to garner votes and political donations from farmers and the agricultural sector.

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