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Sunday, Dec. 15, 2002

MEDIA MIX

To eat or not to eat -- here's some advice


One of the big best sellers of the season is "Taberu na, Kiken" (Don't Eat! Danger!), which was first published in October and is now in its third printing. Unlike most books that enjoy such good sales, it isn't getting much attention in the media.

As the title suggests, it's about unsafe food, and while the press has gotten a lot of mileage out of corporate food scandals in the past year or so, the media in general looks warily on stories that might upset big advertisers, not to mention farmers who will sue if they think journalists have hurt their business.

The place where it can be discussed safely is in the book review sections of newspapers and magazines.

Asahi Shimbun asked psychiatrist Rika Kayama to write about "Taberu na" and rather than discuss its content, she talks about its significance as a social phenomenon.

She mentions "Katte wa Ikenai (Don't Buy It)," a similar-themed best seller from 1999 that analyzed brand-name products in terms of health effects and environmental impact. That book sparked a minor consumer movement which, in turn, led to a backlash of rebuttal publications questioning the authors' agenda.

As Kayama points out, in the three years since "Katte wa Ikenai" was published, the Japanese public has been bombarded with news on an almost daily basis regarding the food they eat and the integrity of the companies that produce and sell it: the BSE scare, scandals involving intentional mislabeling and changing sell-by dates.

She explains that all these matters have combined to make the public distrustful of the authorities and skeptical of companies who want to sell them things that they need to survive. The brisk sales of "Taberu na," which has not benefited from mainstream media publicity, indirectly attest to this perceived tendency.

Kayama says that so far there have been no rebuttals to the book as there were for "Katte wa Ikenai."

The book has only been out a few months, but the main reason for the lack of counterattacks may be its more general purport. "Katte" was about specific products and it was written mostly by one man, a notorious consumer advocate. "Taberu na, Kiken" covers only food and in general categories, and while it contains photos of brand merchandise, it does not discuss specific products.

Moreover, it was written not by a single author, but by a nongovernmental organization with the curious name of Nihon Shison Kigin, which translates directly as the Japan Descendants Foundation.

If it sounds like a rightwing group that intends to safeguard the purity of the Japanese race, it should be noted that one of the central ideas in the book's advocacy for better food responsibility is that people should buy domestic. However, the NGO's purposes are more pragmatic than nationalist.

Imported food, by necessity, contains lots of preservatives and additives. This is hardly arcane stuff, even to people who are not inclined to buy the book. And much of the advice that the foundation offers at the end of each chapter seems patently obvious. When choosing a supermarket, for example, the book says "to look for one with a large portion of organic produce."

Still, the book is valuable. It provides clear instructions on how to read food labels and then how to decipher the ingredients.

For people who worry about such things, it offers balanced analyses of the impact that specific kinds of food production have on the environment.

In other words, it's a handbook that summarizes the current situation with regard to commercial food production and merchandising.

The title, therefore, is misleading, but, considering the ultimate purpose of the book, entirely justifiable.

The hidden message one gets from the "marketplace" through advertising and the news media is that consumers have a choice: expensive safe food, or affordable less safe food. "Taberu na, Kiken" helps reduce this equation to something that is more workable for the layman.

This is important because information about food is bound to become even more confusing. For example, in order to make beef affordable to as much of the world's population as possible, feed must be mass-produced, diseases must be prevented and animal weights must be artificially increased. The results have been BSE and an overuse of antibiotics that may lead to an increase in strains of bacteria that are resistant to these antibiotics.

By itself, this sort of information may not change people's minds about eating beef, but as consumers become more aware of the real impact of mass production on their lives, something is bound to give. Only mass production makes it possible for people to buy food that they once considered beyond their means, and it's mass production and the so-called demands of the marketplace that make for "dangerous" food.

This paradox is particularly bothersome for Japan, where food has always been expensive owing to price controls and the complex distribution system. Now that prices are becoming "normal," consumers need to address the negative aspects of food production.

It isn't easy to prove Kayama's assertion that the book's popularity shows that the public doesn't trust the authorities and the media, but it isn't difficult to believe. The point then becomes: Will the media and the authorities believe it as well?



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