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Sunday, Nov. 1, 2009

MEDIA MIX

Japanese food-safety label protects business foremost, and not people


It's wise to take any advertisement claim with a grain of salt, and some products invite not just skepticism but downright disbelief. Commercials for hair restoration aids may not actually state they will return your bald pate to a state of hirsute lushness, but they nevertheless get your hopes up toward that end. If any product actually did restore hair, it would be considered a medical breakthrough akin to curing cancer. You wouldn't need an ad to sell it.

News photo
Getting a grip: Mizuho Fukushima says she plans to review the Tokuho food-labeling system. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

Likewise health foods that purport to burn body fat. Common sense says that no "natural" food will do that, but there are plenty of products that imply they do. One of these is the tea beverage called Healthiya. In the TV commercial, actor Teruyuki Kagawa is at his sports club preparing to go for a dip in the pool when he notices the slight paunch on the young man next to him. The young man then notices Kagawa noticing him and quickly sucks in his gut. Kagawa smiles because he has no paunch thanks to the fact that he drinks Healthiya, which, when it arrives in his stomach, sets off a glowing fire that is presumably burning up that oily ramen he had for lunch.

If you automatically doubt the veracity of this implication, at the end of the commercial a symbol depicting a stylized human body with arms stretched toward the sky appears at the bottom of the screen to indicate that Healthiya has been designated by the government as a tokutei hoken-yo shokuhin ("tokuho" for short), or "food for specified health use," so you don't have to worry about whether or not the ad's implication is true or not, because the authorities have already worried for you and concluded that it is.

Actually, they have done no such thing, as evidenced by the scandal surrounding Econa cooking oil, which, like Healthiya, is manufactured by the soapmaker Kao and received the tokuho label back in 1998. Econa's claim, which is right there on the bottle, is similar to Healthiya's: It makes it difficult for fat to accumulate in the body. However, it was recently revealed that one component of Econa can morph into a suspected carcinogen after it is digested. Consequently, in September Kao recalled the entire Econa series, which includes 59 products, including salad dressings and dog food, from Japanese retailers and stores overseas (where it is sold under the name Enova).

The company said Econa is perfectly safe, but it decided to withdraw it from the market until it reduces the amount of the problem substance and "people have no reason to worry any more."

What's troubling about this development is that the company itself seems to be in charge of its own monitoring, and, in fact, once the authorized ministry gives a product the tokuho designation, it doesn't seem to have anything to do with it any more.

Questions about Econa's safety have been asked since 2002, when an entirely different ingredient was brought up for scrutiny. Kao sought a tokuho label for its Econa mayonnaise and one of its components, diacyglycerol (DAG), was suspected of turning into a carcinogen in the body. Kao claimed that the substance was not absorbed, and the health ministry took the company at its word and approved the tokuho label, but it also asked the Food Safety Commission to study the matter.

Usually, all the FSC does is take the data supplied by the company and look at it more closely, but consumer groups asked the health ministry to stop sales of Econa because of the carcinogen suspicions. The ministry replied that "there is not enough evidence" to show that anything in Econa products "promote" the production of carcinogenic substances. According to this logic, you don't need to recall a product until it is proved that consumers are dying from it, but in any case the FSC decided to make its study more thorough. Their results were finally available last February, and were inconclusive.

Then, in March, an unrelated German study into powdered milk using processed vegetable oil found that glycidol fatty acid esters in the oil could be analyzed into carcinogens in the body. Econa contains from 10 to 182 times the amount of glycidol fatty acid esters found in regular cooking oils, so consumer groups asked the health ministry to look into this matter, too.

But due to the vertical nature of Japanese bureaucracy, neither the health ministry nor the FSC nor even the new Consumer Affairs Ministry could do anything about it. They are different government entities with different purposes (and, perhaps more importantly, different budgets), meaning there is no real coordination among them. The CAM is now in charge of tokuho certification, but it can't rescind a label awarded by the health ministry. Neither the health ministry nor the CAM can evaluate food safety, which is the job of the FSC. And the only entity that can prohibit sales of a product is the health ministry, which was still waiting for a conclusive safety evaluation from the FSC.

So, in the end, in order to avoid further media attention, Kao decided to take matters into its own hands and pull Econa from the market, at least until "people stopped worrying." They also unilaterally removed the tokuho label, which, if anyone doubted before, is clearly a meaningless designation, and the new minister for consumer affairs, Mizuho Fukushima, seems to understand that. In the wake of the Econa scandal she has said she plans to review the tokuho system "from the ground up," and has hinted she may scrap it but insists she will not address the matter with that intention.

Fukushima is playing it safe because it may be difficult to get rid of the tokuho system. It's been around since 1991, and products with the tokuho designation now account for ¥680 billion in sales a year. The label benefits makers more than consumers, but that makes sense since the Japanese government has always put business ahead of people.



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