Japan must take rapid, radical steps to fight mad cow

December 25, 2001 Japan Economic Newswire by Ko Hirano
Animal and food safety experts say Japan must take radical steps to deal with mad cow disease, but it remains to be seen if it can follow the lead of other nations, such as Germany, and move swiftly enough to stamp out the deadly disease.

In comparison to Japan's poor handling of the three confirmed cases of mad cow -- the first cases of the disease discovered outside Europe -- and its subsequent lack of haste and indecision in addressing the matter, Germany dealt with its mad cow crisis that broke out November last year with far more finesse and decisiveness.

The panic triggered by the disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), cost the then German agriculture and health ministers their jobs and led the country to reorganize its Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Forestry, which became the Ministry of Consumer Protection, Food and Agriculture in January this year.

'The BSE panic cost us a lot...What we did was ensure safety, quality and transparency of feeds and foods for consumers, which eventually will benefit producers,' said Matthias Berninger, parliamentary state secretary for Germany's Ministry of Consumer Protection, Food and Agriculture. Of the 1.7 million cattle tested nationwide, Germany reported seven mad cow cases in 2000 and 121 cases in 2001 as of Dec. 19, according to statistics compiled by the Paris-based Office International des Epizooties (OIE), known in English as the World Organization for Animal Health.

Berninger, a member of the Bundestag Federal Assembly from the ruling Alliance 90/the Greens, told Kyodo News the elimination of meat-and-bone meal (MBM) feed, made from the carcasses of ruminants such as cattle and sheep, and other risky food and feed materials was key to preventing the spread of BSE.

Scientists have linked BSE to MBM made from the bones and body parts of infected cows, which contain 'unusual prions,' rogue proteins and disease-causing agents responsible for a variety of fatal neurodegenerative diseases in animals and humans.

The disease is thought to cause the human variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), a fatal brain affliction.

According to Berninger, Germany has legally banned the production, export and import of MBM and nearly completed the destruction of remaining MBM stocks.

Germany is also recycling MBM as a cement material and even helping other European countries destroy it at the country's incinerators.

Beef consumption in Germany has now returned to more than 80% of levels seen before the mad cow scare hit the country. It dropped by 75% when several mad cow cases came to light last winter, he added.

In Japan, a poll conducted Dec. 15-16 by the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper found 68% of Japanese have stopped eating meat or are eating less beef since the farm ministry confirmed the first case of the disease in a cow in Chiba Prefecture on Sept. 22.

Yoshihiro Ozawa, adviser for the Regional Representation for Asia and the Pacific of the OIE, also stressed the importance of how carefully and quickly countries hit with mad cow disease, including Japan, must handle MBM to prevent the proliferation of the disease.

Following the first reports of BSE cases in Britain in the mid-1980s, the Japanese government in 1996 'recommended' MBM not be fed to cattle, though the government had until recently allowed farmers to feed such animals as pigs and chickens with MBM.

However, farm ministry investigations in September found 165 households in 15 prefectures in Japan engaged in livestock farming had fed MBM, as well as blood and bone meal feed, to a total of 5,129 cows.

MBM was then officially banned for use in feeding cattle on Sept. 18, ministry officials said. It was also banned for other livestock on Oct. 15.

On Nov. 30, however, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tsutomu Takebe said he could not deny the possibility that contaminated MBM had been imported to Japan -- signaling the government may not have taken sufficient steps to prevent the outbreak of BSE in Japan.

It also was found the farm ministry rejected in June accepting an investigative report drafted by the European Union saying Japan was at risk for a BSE outbreak.

On Dec. 21 the ministry then asked the EU to draw up another risk-assessment for BSE since Japan would be automatically designated as a country at high risk if Tokyo fails to make the request by the end of the year.

The Yomiuri poll also found 76% of the respondents blamed the government for its poor handling of the BSE crisis.

Japan must learn that insufficient measures, such as issuing nonbinding advice to cattle raisers and feed brokers, can hardly work to control the suspected flow of MBM from the feeding troughs of pigs and chickens to those for cattle, Ozawa said.

He called for a much stricter MBM inspection and surveillance system in Japan, but stressed it is even more important that government inspectors, livestock farmers, importers as well as exporters approach the case as an 'ethical issue' and pledge not to continue using MBM feed to further their own interests.

Germany's consumer protection ministry says it is committed to permanently banning MBM from the feeding troughs throughout the country, as well as other EU member states.

In this respect, Ozawa encouraged Tokyo to eliminate a stock of some 80,000 tons of MBM 'as soon as possible.'

Berninger agreed with Ozawa's view, saying, 'If you want consumers to regain confidence in meat products, you need absolute transparency, accountability and a trustworthy control system through the whole process (from breeding the cattle to inspecting their meat).'

Berninger believes rapid industrialization of the farm sector was behind the outbreak of BSE that first emerged in Britain and later spread into wide areas of Europe leaving more than 100 people dead.

He added farming and food production should be based on 'quality rather than quantity' and organic food should be further developed to replace MBM and other food and feed materials that may endanger the health of consumers.

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