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Friday, Sept. 19, 2008

Ministry received Mikasa tip in 2007, Ota admits

Staff writer

The farm ministry was first tipped off about Mikasa Foods' distribution of inedible tainted rice in January 2007 but was unable to uncover any wrongdoing, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Seiichi Ota told the Diet on Thursday.

"I would like to deeply apologize to the consumers and the public for causing concern and trouble over the issue of the illegal distribution of tainted rice," Ota said.

Special hearings of the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Committee were held in both the Lower and Upper houses. Ota admitted during the hearings that the farm ministry received information on the tainted rice in January 2007 but was unable to uncover any illegalities at that point.

The ministry has conducted a total of 96 inspections since 2004 but only discovered the illegal activity after two further tip-offs at the end of August.

"It goes without saying that the illegal activities by Mikasa Foods and other companies were outrageous," the farm minister said. "But the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry strongly feels responsible for having overlooked the illegal distribution for a long time and as a result, making consumers anxious over food safety."

The outspoken Ota, known for his slips of the tongue, drew criticism last week by saying on a TV program that he was "confident that the tainted rice has no influence on the human body" so he "is not making too much of a fuss" over it.

When asked by fellow lawmaker Mineichi Iwanaga of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to clarify the statement, he ducked the question by saying the ministry "will steadily continue to provide accurate information to consumers."

According to the ministry, the maximum legal concentration for the pesticide methamidophos in rice is 0.01 part per million.

Opposition party lawmakers jeered Ota, saying "that was not an answer." Even Iwanaga expressed disappointment at Ota's reply.

Ota also expressed shock over the death of Shuichi Nakagawa, the head of rice retailer Nakagawa in Nara, who hanged himself Monday. His company was one of the 375 companies named by the farm minister as having bought tainted rice from Mikasa Foods.

"We released all of the names of the companies because we prioritized getting rid of the anxiety of the consumers and regaining trust," Ota explained.

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The Japan Times

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