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Friday, Oct. 26, 2001
Products using beef extract not exempt in mad cow scare
OSAKA -- Despite the government's repeated assurances, it is not clear how soon domestic beef consumption will recover to levels before the nation was hit by the mad cow scare in September. But consumer advocates have warned that the threat of the disease does not come from beef alone.
One of the ingredients commonly used in instant noodles, instant soup, pralines and other prepackaged foods is beef extract, which includes oil from cows' heads.
Since the nation's first mad cow case surfaced at a farm in Chiba Prefecture last month, instant noodle makers have had tests done on products using beef extract under orders from the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry.
All beef extract drawn from bovine parts that the World Health Organization has designated as potentially risky must be checked. The ministry will collect information from the food processing industry and issue a final report.
Mindful of the public criticism against Snow Brand Milk Products over its slow response to the food-poisoning outbreak stemming from its contaminated milk products last year, several major processed food makers have published their efforts to ensure safety of their products on the Internet in an attempt to calm jittery consumers.
At Osaka-based Nissin Food Products Co., one of the country's largest producers of instant noodles in a cup, these efforts include notifying customers that the company uses beef from Australia, the United States and New Zealand, where no mad cow cases have been reported. The disease has surfaced in 16 countries so far, mostly in Europe.
"We conducted checks (of the firm's products) over a period of nearly three weeks, and they revealed no problems," said Ken Sasahara, a Nissin Food spokesman.
The company also received guarantees from both domestic and international suppliers of beef extract that their products did not include extract from brains and other parts of cows deemed as particularly susceptible to mad cow disease.
"From the first of October, we also began replacing domestic beef extract that is used in soups with extract from the U.S. and Australia," Sasahara said.
Tokyo-based Sanyo Foods also announced in mid-October that it too was replacing a portion of its beef extract that had been supplied by Japanese manufacturers with extract from Australia and the U.S., and that it had obtained guarantees from all suppliers that bovine parts designated as susceptible to mad cow disease were not being used.
"We conducted checks on all of our products, and have been sending inspectors from our company to check domestic suppliers of beef extract. We also set up a telephone consultation service for public queries," said Kenji Kinoshita, a Sanyo Foods spokesman.
Nobuko Hiwasa, secretary general of the consumer watchdog group National Liaison Committee of Consumers' Organizations, agreed there is a low risk of the disease in instant noodles, including ramen.
"The makers of instant noodles and ramen use almost entirely beef extract imported from the U.S., Australia and New Zealand, so we believe it is unlikely that instant ramen was affected," Hiwasa said.
But she added that, as it is logistically impossible to check every packet of instant noodles, and as there are few outside experts available to independently inspect those products, there is little the public can do to verify manufacturers' assurances that everything is safe.
"In the end, all we can really do is trust the manufacturers when they say their own inspections revealed no problems," Hiwasa said.
Both Nissin and Sanyo claim that sales of instant noodle products have not been affected. However, some convenience stores are reporting that sales have slowed considerably.
"We've seen a sales slowdown. I think that a lot of people are still scared," said Mika Hasegawa, an employee at a Lawson convenience store near JR Kyobashi Station in Osaka.