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Sunday, Sept. 21, 2008

MEDIA MIX

Koizumi branded the bad boy in latest food scandal


Most of the recent food-related scandals were motivated by pure greed, so they were easy to understand. The current scandal involving inedible imported rice bought from the government and sold as edible rice is more complicated and raises some questions. How do the governments of the countries that produced the imported rice feel when they learn that the Japanese authorities say it is "unfit for consumption?" And does that mean that the consumers in those countries are in danger?

Based on the vast amount of information about the scandal in the media, it's easy to get the impression that Japan's agriculture ministry is as responsible for the scandal as is Mikasa Foods, the company that sold the inedible rice. But the main villain according to a lot of media pundits is none other than former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, because he's the person who liberalized the rice market in 2003.

Prior to liberalization, rice was strictly controlled. Buyers and sellers of rice had to have licenses, which Koizumi did away with. All anyone had to do if they wanted to buy or sell rice was report the transaction to the government. The obvious result of this change was greater competition and a steep drop in prices. The hidden result is that it became easier to get around regulations.

Since 1993, the World Trade Organization has compelled Japan to buy 77,000 tons of rice a year from various countries so that it can keep the tariffs that protect domestic rice. Japan is more than self-sufficient in rice and in order to maintain a market price that doesn't bankrupt farmers, use of the imported product is limited to processed foods, like shochu (Japanese liquor) and rice crackers. But the government sells only a small portion of this imported rice, and must store the rest, leading to toxic mold forming on it. Add to this the imported rice that was found to have higher than acceptable levels of agrichemical residue, and by 2006 there was almost 2 million tons of inedible rice, costing the government ¥18.9 billion a year in storage expenses.

Companies like Mikasa Foods take this rice off the government's hands with the stated intention of selling it for industrial use — making glue, etc. Mikasa bought the inedible rice for ¥10,000 per ton and through a dummy company resold it to food wholesalers as edible rice for ¥35,000 a ton. Since food processors pay up to ¥80,000 a ton for imported rice, wholesalers gobbled it up.

Some people now wonder if the agriculture ministry wasn't aware of Mikasa's scheme, since the company was doing the government a huge favor by buying inedible rice. Much has been made of the fact that the ministry inspected Mikasa 96 times since 2006 without finding anything fishy. In addition, the ministry will not reveal to reporters the names of the 16 companies other than Mikasa that bought tainted rice because, according to a spokesman, "We don't have the right to give out those names without their permission."

But the comment that raised eyebrows the highest was made by agriculture minister Seiichi Ota. He told reporters that people shouldn't worry because the rice really wasn't that harmful. The next day he corrected himself and said that the rice was a "significant problem."

Is the rice really inedible? In an article in last week's Aera, two physicians relate how they recently contacted the health ministry about an increase in illnesses they believe were caused by acephate, an organic phosphate pesticide widely used on fields and orchards. They found that the symptoms of people who ingest too much acephate are almost identical to those reported for people who ingest methamidophos, the same organic phosphate that rendered some of the imported rice inedible, according to the government, and which is controlled in Japan.

The doctors urged the health ministry to regulate acephate in the same way it regulates methamidophos. At present, the ministry allows green tea to be sold with up to 50 parts per million of acephate residue. In contrast, it only allows 0.001 ppm of methamidophos residue on imported rice. The inedible rice under investigation supposedly has 0.003 ppm residue, which is why it is classified as inedible. Given that standard, maybe domestic green tea should be banned, too. Aera lists 28 fruits and vegetables imported from the United States and grown in Japan along with their respective residue ppm limits. For each one, the acceptable limit in domestic produce is higher than that for imports, as much as 50 times in the case of potatoes.

These numbers suggest that you are more likely to get ill from domestic rice than from the imported kind, which answers the question of why the tainted rice doesn't sicken the people who live in the countries where it's produced. By setting the allowable residual ppm level low, the government can prevent too much imported rice from entering the market and driving down prices even further. The U.S. has stipulated that the rice it sells to Japan must be sold on the market, but if the government did that openly, it would anger farmers, who are already pretty steamed due to Koizumi's market liberalization. Whether the ministry knew about it or not, Mikasa's scam allowed the government to have its rice and eat it, too.

The Liberal Democratic Party has said that the consumer agency proposed by outgoing Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda will make it more difficult for companies to fool consumers this way, but that sounds like asking the fox to guard the henhouse. Journalist Makoto Sataka, appearing on a TBS news show, provided a corollary to this idea by describing how he once wrote a book with an ex-bureaucrat who told him he was sometimes warned by a colleague to "not eat any sushi that particular week." The moral of the story? Always eat with a civil servant.

Correction: In last week's column, comments attributed to Hiroshi Sekiguchi and Kenji Isesaki were said to have been made on TV Asahi's "Sunday Project." They were actually made in TBS's "Sunday Morning."


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