Tokyo pressures Brussels to bury alarming report on mad cow disease

Tokyo pressures Brussels to bury alarming report on mad cow disease

June 17, 2001 Agence France Presse by Regis Arnaud

Japan's agricultural ministry is pressuring Brussels to block publication of an alarming report by the European Commission on mad cow disease in Japan, said European diplomats.

"Tokyo is very worried and keeps on sending delegations to Brussels to ask for a delay in publication of the report," said a diplomat from the European Commission's Tokyo office, who declined to be named.

"On May 11, for the third time in a row the Scientific Steering Committee (SSC) delayed the publication of its evaluation concerning BSE in Japan," said another member from the EC's Japanese branch, who also wished to remain anonymous.

The SSC in charge of nutritional safety in the European Union (EU), evaluates the risk-level of mad cow disease -- or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) -- in various non-member countries to prevent importations of contaminated meat into the EU.

SSC reports on numerous countries have already been publicised, but an official comment on Japan has yet to materialise.

A country is allocated a grade from one to four according to its perceived risk of contracting BSE. The higher the grade the greater the chance of BSE having already contaminated the food chain.

According to sources close to the SSC Japan has been given a risk-three rating -- the worst grade of any nation to date.

"Japan is a safe country as far as BSE is concerned. There has not been any case so far and we don't think we are at risk," said an official from the meat and egg division of the Ministry of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF).

Imports to Japan of animal feed from Britain, where the disease was first identified, stood at 132 tonnes per year in 1990 but had dropped to zero by 1997, according to data from the UK customs office.

The risk of contracting BSE domestically is very weak, according to Japan's scientific community.

"Of course we imported some suspect material from Europe," said doctor Takashi Yokoyama from the national institute of animal health.

"Animal feed is mostly used for fertility, for soil, or plant growing. Because of this I think there is little risk," he said.

But according to a foreign scientist close to the contentious report on the possibility of BSE in Japan: "A risk occured from the moment they started importing animal feed."

The quantity of feed imported by Japan was sufficient to trigger an epidemic, he said.

"BSE in Japan is a time-bomb waiting to explode," he said. "The Japanese do not want to look for it therefore they do not find it."

"The Japanese agricultural ministry has asked to present new elements to the SSC. But it does not have anything fresh to say," he continued.

Political pressure and concern from Japan's farming community have made the ministry falter, said the scientist.

"It does not want to scare Japanese consumers and hopes the problem will just disappear."

Takashi Onodera, Japanese government advisor on food safety and professor of molecular immunology at the University of Tokyo, said: "The SSC's rating is unfair but it is true that we must intensify our controls.

"This year Japan will only buy 300 test kits to determine the health of her cattle."

Japan really needs 30,000 kits to conduct a more thorough survey of its cattle, said the professor.

"If you want top quality traditional Japanese beef you need meat with thin bones and a lot of fat, i.e. an old cow -- killed when it is about seven years of age."

The length of incubation for BSE to develop in a cow is around five and a half years "which means, in theory, Japanese beef is in a high-risk category," Onodera explained.

But in practice, "because cattle feed given to Japanese cows is soya bean or beer based, there is hardly any real risk," he said.

There could be serious repercussions on European meat exports to Japan if the SSC eventually publishes its report, warned the European diplomat.

"Japan -- which has already imposed a ban on all beef imports from Europe for fear of sparking a BSE epidemic -- could raise a partial block on European pork, triggered by a recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease, to cover all pig meat coming from the EU as well," he said.

Such a move would be painful for countries like Denmark, which -- at 200,000 tonnes of meat a year -- accounts for 80 percent of all European pork imported to the archipelago and 33 percent of all pig-meat imports to Japan.

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