Govt must act fast to counter BSE

September 12, 2001 The Daily Yomiuri (Tokyo)
A heifer suspected of having contracted mad cow disease has been discovered in Chiba Prefecture, the first reported case of the fatal brain disorder in this country. The latest discovery indicates that the safety of foods consumed by the Japanese people faces an extremely serious threat.

Since the 1990s, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) has raged mainly in Europe, where the disease has wreaked havoc, affecting and killing a large number of people.

There is no reason to be optimistic about the situation any longer, although the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry has repeatedly insisted that domestic cows are safe. The ministry should cooperate with the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry in taking all possible measures to deal with the situation, including efforts to determine how the cow in question contracted the disease and whether any other cows have been affected by BSE. In early August, the Holstein heifer in question became unable to stand upright and showed other symptoms of the disease. Initial tests were negative. However, the cow's brain was later found to contain spongelike cavities, a typical sign of mad cow disease. A separate test was also positive.

100 countries may be affected

BSE is a fatal disease that attacks cows. The disorder is believed to be caused by a prion, a disease-causing protein. It was first confirmed in Britain in 1986.

BSE is particularly dreadful in that humans can contract the fatal disease after eating beef products containing nervous and lymphatic tissues from infected cattle. Since 1996, more than 100 people--mainly in Britain--have been found to be infected with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a form of dementia linked to BSE. Britain exported feed produced with bones and meat from cattle suspected of having the disease to many other parts of the world until the mid-1990s.

According to a report released by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization this year, there may be BSE-infected cows in more than 100 countries around the world. In fact, there were a large number of reports about such cows from member states of the European Union in 2000.

However, the agriculture ministry has been slow in responding to a potential threat that may strike this country.

In 1996, the ministry issued a notice urging farmers not to give cattle animal-derived feed. In January, the ministry said it would ban imports of animal-based feed from EU nations. However, these moves came in the form of administrative guidance, which is not legally binding. About 80,000 tons of animal-derived feed have since been imported to Japan.

Ministry needs sense of crisis

The ministry is taking steps to revised related laws to tighten controls on animal-based feed. However, the ministry's action is a day late and a dollar short.

In addition, the ministry opposed an attempt by the EU to compile a report on the possibility that BSE may strike Japan, saying that doing so would lead the public to believe that the disease may already have reached this nation. The EU ended up abandoning its plan.

Faced with the nation's first suspected case of BSE, the ministry has said that there is no need to conduct a nationwide investigation into the possible spread of the disease. Instead, it has said that there are no chances that the fatal disease may affect other cows, apparently out of concern that rumors to this effect could damage the livestock anbd other industries. The ministry should deserves to be criticized for having no sense of crisis about the situation.

Meanwhile, the health ministry has said it will carry out a close examination of about 10,000 domestic cows earlier than initially scheduled. The inspection originally was set for fiscal 2002. The ministry is correct in having made that decision. Still, we believe it should consider expanding the scope of its survey.

It is crucial for the government to accurately determine the actual state of affairs regarding mad cow disease in this country, while also publicizing in full the results of its investigation. The public will never trust the government if it insists that domestic cows are safe without presenting convincing evidence that this is the case.

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