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Sunday, Oct. 19, 2008

COUNTERPOINT

Is anyone watching over Japan's official food-quality watchdogs?


A policeman named Bakichi suspects that a farmer has been selling tainted meat and visits his farm. He discovers that the farmer has, against the law, recently sold flesh from a cow that died of tuberculosis. But Bakichi returns to the police station and falsely reports that the farmer buried the cow's body and sold only its hide.

I will return to this story about how poor-quality, and possibly dangerous meat has come to be consumed by humans.

These days, stories like this are legion. Perhaps the most shocking is the case of the Nagoya-based glue-maker Asai. Coming hot on the heels of the Mikasa Foods scandal, in which that company was found to have sold tainted rice as "edible" to 370 companies, the Asai case, now unfolding, compounds our anxiety about the safety of Japanese foodstuffs. This is rice we are talking about, the very staple of the Japanese diet.

Asai was meant to use the rice, originating in China, for its own industrial purposes. But the president of the company, Toshinori Asai, allegedly sold it to the food company Nonogaki Kokuhan, so yielding both companies a handsome profit.

The rice contained twice the acceptable limit of metamidophos, an insecticide classified as a "danger poison" that may cause convulsions, paralysis and coma. This is the same deadly insecticide that was found in gyoza dumplings made from ingredients imported from China.

The fact that this contaminated rice came from China in the first place is irrelevant here, because the Chinese exporters presumably intended their product to be used in the manufacturing of glue — seeing as they sold it to an adhesive-maker.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, charged with the investigation of these mass poisonings, states its role as follows:

"In order to assure a healthy and abundant dietary life for the people, it is necessary to strive toward maintenance and reinforcement of the ability to attain self-sufficiency in food supplies at all times, maintaining, on the other hand, an appropriate combination of imported and domestic production."

There are two points here.

The first concerns "self-sufficiency," a virtually unattainable goal for a country where approximately 60 percent of its food on a calorific basis is presently imported.

The second point revolves around the word "healthy." Here we must ask ourselves the question, Who are the watchdogs over the production of foodstuffs in Japan, and who is watching the watchdogs?

Any attempt by the government or media to turn this question into one based on mistrust of imported food is a cheap, nationalistic ruse.

All food consumed in Japan, regardless whether it was produced in Hokkaido, Harbin or Hoboken, should be subject to the same degree of strict oversight.

And it's not only rice and dumplings that are affected.

Writing in the New Scientist on Oct. 1, Debora MacKenzie points to the dangerous level of mercury in some fish. In fact, Japan's most popular fish, tuna, comes in for scrutiny here.

"In 2000," she writes, "a doctor in San Francisco saw a stream of patients with odd and confusing symptoms, such as fatigue, stomach upset, loss of hair, trouble concentrating and memory problems. She soon discovered that they all had something in common: They all ate lots of big fish, like tuna and swordfish. So she tested them for mercury, and found their levels were elevated. She advised them to stop eating the fish and soon the mercury, and most of their symptoms, disappeared."

The effects of elevated mercury levels in food can be catastrophic to the body, particularly to fetuses and children. At the local fish shop in Sydney where I shopped over this summer, there is a notice above the counter warning pregnant women not to eat too much of particular fish. The fish in question are the larger ones such as swordfish and tuna. But if it is not safe for pregnant women to eat something, why would it be safe for others? And what is "too much"?

It is easy for Japanese authorities to come down hard on foodstuffs that are imported. This reinforces the myth of Japanese quality, that Japan-produced foods are somehow more pure and safe than those from overseas. It also bestows on the government the glow of a reliable watchdog reputation when a mislabeling scandal is investigated, whether it be for "quality" chickens that turn out to be ordinary ones, for cakes that are redated and resold as fresh, or for beef patties actually made with minced pork and chicken.

But the real issue is much bigger. Simply stated, it is this: Are we being sufficiently protected from Japanese food producers and manufacturers who are compromising standards of safety in order to reap inordinate profits?

No one eats as much fish per capita as the Japanese. Go to an ordinary Japanese restaurant and you can easily have only fish dishes, one after the other. Yet, MacKenzie writes:

"Today we are told to eat fish for 'heart-healthy' omega-3 fatty acids, but we are not told that if we eat enough of it — and 'enough' is not that much for some fish — dangers posed by mercury will more than outweigh the benefits."

She pinpoints the cause as follows:

"The majority of mercury in the environment comes from coal-fired power plants, and most human exposure is from fish." And she adds: "Scientists funded by industry initially concluded that mercury is safe up to higher levels than those found by scientists not funded by industry."

Who is doing the studies in Japan? Why is a level of mercury in fish of one part per million considered acceptable when reports indicate that even this level is dangerous? (The mercury levels in larger fish such as swordfish and tuna — let alone cetaceans — can easily exceed this.)

The myth of Japanese food quality will not die easily. Imported beef is naturally, and properly, subject to the strictest tests. The assumption is that Japanese beef is, by its very nature, safe. We eat our tuna sashimi and sushi believing it is doing us only good. Is our trust in safety standards justified? As tuna goes, so goes the nation.

Let's return to the tale of Bakichi the policeman. This anecdote is from a lesser-known story written by Kenji Miyazawa in 1925, titled "Bakichi's Jobs." It tells of a policeman who was both lazy and corrupt, with the result that innocent consumers were poisoned.

The German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72) is famous for his maxim, "People are what they eat."

Are we all victims of "Bakichi's incompetence" — and what has really changed in Japan since 1925?



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