Tokyo under fire for BSE 'blunder'

April 3, 2002 The Financial Times (London) by Bayan Rahman
The Japanese government came under fire yesterday for ignoring a World Health Organisation recommendation that could have prevented the outbreak of BSE, or "mad cow" disease, in Japan and suppressing a European Union report highlighting the risks last year.

The findings of an investigative panel increased the pressure on Tsutomu Takebe, the agriculture minister, who survived a no confidence motion in February, to resign and for other officials to be punished.

However, Mr Takebe won support from the prime minister and indicated that he intended to remain in his post but take a temporary pay cut. "I will do my utmost to restore the people's trust by carrying out drastic reforms of the farm ministry," Mr Takebe said on receiving the panel's recommendations. The 10-strong panel, made up of consumer advocates, scientists and farming experts, criticised the government for making a "grave blunder" in failing to ban meat and bone meal in animal feed in the 1990s.

"The key error was made in 1996 when the government failed to act on a WHO recommendation that it should not use meat and bone meal in cattle feed," said Takashi Onodera of Tokyo university, a member of the panel.

The panel also criticised the lack of adequate legal safeguards to ensure food safety and censured the government for ignoring an EU report on the risk of an outbreak in Japan of the brain-wasting disease that has caused dozens of human deaths in Europe.

The public outcry over the disease has undermined trust in the administration of Junichiro Koizumi. The scare has come amid other food scandals, most notably involving the Snow Brand company's milk-related and beef-mislabelling incidents.

Responsibility for food safety and labelling falls to a handful of government agencies. The bureaucratic bungling has echoes of the negligence that led to the death of haemophiliac patients given untreated blood and being infected with Aids.

The panel called for a review of food-related laws and the establishment of an independent food safety agency that would report directly to the prime minister. This would make it independent from the influence of politicians with vested interests, who are criticised in the report for placing farmers' interests above those of the public.

The new agency would assess food safety and have the authority to issue warnings to the farm and health ministries.

"Beef consumption is down 80 per cent from last year and only after a new food safety agency is set up can we hope to regain the public's confidence in food," said Dr Onodera.

The report said the health and agriculture ministries lacked accountability.

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