Worries remain over BSE

September 8, 2002 The Daily Yomiuri (Tokyo) by Yomiuri
On Tuesday, it will be a year since Japan's first case of mad cow disease was discovered.

Four other cases of the disease, formally called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), have also been found, and as a result, the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry has allocated about 350 billion yen to deal with the disease.

Nearly two-thirds of the money is to be paid out in compensation to stock farmers, while 26.3 billion yen has been allocated for the government's domestic beef buyback scheme.

The buyback scheme has resulted in a series of scandals, in which such prominent firms as Snow Brand Foods Co. and Nippon Meat Packers Inc. were found to have misrepresented imported beef as domestic meat to obtain state subsidies. Such incidents have sparked public concern over food safety. The cause of the initial infections have yet to be determined, and stockbreeders are still worried about the future of their industry and angry about what they see as the failure of the government to properly handle the crisis.

About 144 billion yen was spent to deal with BSE last fiscal year, and about 205.5 billion yen is allocated for the current fiscal year. Of the 349.5 billion yen allocated, about 213.1 billion yen has been earmarked to compensate stock farmers for their losses and to buy up older dairy cattle, considered to be more susceptible to the disease.

The ministry has appointed the Agriculture and Livestock Industries Corporation, a public corporation under jurisdiction of the ministry, to handle the aftermath of the outbreak. The public corporation obtained about 340 billion yen, 98 percent of the total cost, as grant from the ministry. The corporation then entrusted stock farmers' organizations and the ministry's affiliated bodies to undertake the actual operation of various programs. It has been criticized for poor management of the beef-buyback scheme.

Although the World Health Organization advised member countries to ban meat-and-bone meal in April 1996, the ministry tried to end use of the cattle-based cattle feed through administrative guidance instead of an outright ban.

Observers have said if the ministry had taken appropriate actions at that time, infection could have been prevented at least after the spring of that year. They also said the cost for handling the cases would have been much less if the measures were taken earlier.

A 56-year-old stock farmer of Shiroi, Chiba Prefecture, who raised the first cow found to infected, recently said: "I'm still wondering why my cow was infected. Couldn't the government have taken necessary measures much earlier?"

The wife of a former dairy farmer in Saromacho, Hokkaido, said: "There are very few people who understand our pains. As long as the cause is undetermined, it will be difficult for us to live in peace." Milk substitute not seen as cause

A factor common to all five cases of BSE is that the milk substitute given to the cows during the first few months of their lives was produced at the same factory operated by a subsidiary of the National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations (Zenno). Beef tallow from the Netherlands was used to manufacture the milk product, and it is suspected that abnormal prions, which carry the disease, might have been mixed into the product.

However, since it has been concluded in Europe that meat and bone meal is the main route of the infection, experts are skeptical about the milk substitute causing the infection.

Although the ministry has sent officials to the Netherlands to research the possibility that the beef tallow was the cause of the infection, no results have yet been obtained.

Investigations into meat and bone meal as the possible source of infection have revealed that imports from Italy included some meal that had not undergone sufficient heating and pressurization. Imports from Hong Kong also include those whose production processes are unclear.

Prof. Takashi Onodera of Tokyo University, a specialist in applied immunology, said: "Even in Europe, the routes of infection have been determined in only a few cases. It's necessary that inspections of all the dead cows be performed as soon as possible so that how the infection occurred can be thoroughly analyzed."

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