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Saturday, Dec. 11, 2010

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Sharing caring: Experts and journalists discuss consumer protection issues at the Nov. 27-28 22nd EU-Japan Journalists' Conference held in Kobe Portopia Hotel. COURTESY OF THE DELEGATION OF THE EUROPEAN UNION TO JAPAN

Japan, EU encouraged to share consumer safety info, knowhow


Staff writer

Protecting the safety and interests of consumers is essential in an age of rapid globalization, and both Japan and the European Union could benefit from exchanging practical information and experiences, journalists and experts agreed during a recent conference.

Consumer safety experts from the EU and journalists from Japan recently gathered for the 22nd EU-Japan Journalists' Conference from Nov. 27-28 at Kobe Portopia Hotel.

Attendees said the EU and Japan share many similar concerns regarding consumer protection, and agreed the media play an important role in ensuring safety is promoted.

"The EU has a desire to play a more active role on the global stage, and Japan is an important strategic partner," said Rudie Filon, head of the press, public and cultural affairs section of the Delegation of the European Union to Japan.

Filon explained that decades after its formation, the EU is "still a work in progress," and stressed that the bloc, now consisting of 27 nations and totaling nearly 500 million people, shares many challenges faced by Japan, including an aging society and health care-related issues.

This year's conference featured three sessions covering topics ranging from food and product safety to public health, with presentations by experts in each of the fields followed by questions and comments by Japanese journalists.

Despina Spanou, principal adviser to the European Commission's Directorate-General for Health and Consumers, gave a comprehensive account of the EU's efforts toward realizing effective health and consumer policies.

Spanou said that over 9 percent of the EU's GDP, or more than 1 trillion euro ($1.3 trillion), was spent on health, making it the third-biggest economic sector in the EU after real estate and wholesale and retail trade.

Spanou also outlined measures the EU has been implementing to prevent various health threats, including policies aimed at promoting cancer screening and reducing diseases caused by smoking, alcohol and obesity.

And with the EU being the biggest exporter and importer of foodstuffs in the world, Spanou said it is crucial that the bloc implement effective food safety principles and guidelines to ensure the well-being of its consumers.

Annelise Fenger, deputy director general of the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration, gave specific examples of how Denmark is dealing with such issues, explaining that many of the measures taken were in line with EU policies.

Fenger said food safety is a priority in Denmark, and explained that all establishments selling or serving food products are assessed and classified in one of six risk groups. Such establishments are then obliged to post the results of the inspection somewhere prominent on the premises.

The results are represented graphically, with the highest mark being a satisfactory smiley face. The best of the best are awarded an "Elite Smiley" mark, which can only be obtained if an establishment is granted four smiley marks during a 12-month span.

Fenger said that while the system initially faced strong resistance from shop owners and restaurateurs, it proved to be enormously effective in improving the overall level of food safety.

Fenger also pointed out that the media were partly responsible for maintaining a high level of food safety in her country. "The media keep us on our toes," she said, explaining that media attention and coverage of food safety-related issues help maintain consumer safety.

Ichiro Fujita, from the health ministry's food safety department, described the screening process employed when Japan imports food. He added that in May, Tokyo signed a special initiative with Beijing aimed at improving product safety through annual meetings between Japanese and Chinese officials, as well as increased exchanges of information related to food safety.

China, a key trade partner for Japan, unfortunately has a rather poor track record when it comes to product safety, he said.

In response, Jan Deconinck, chairman of the Product Safety Enforcement Forum of Europe, explained the product screening process the EU employs.

Deconinck, who is a "market surveillance officer" in Belgium, gave specific examples of products that had to be withdrawn or recalled from the market, including faulty eclipse sunglasses that lacked sufficient protection from ultraviolet light and small jack-o'-lantern candle holders that caused house fires.

Deconinck also gave an overview of RAPEX, a rapid alert system for dangerous food products. He said RAPEX is used to circulate information on dangerous products identified in one EU state to all other members of the bloc, as well as to the European Commission.

On medical health, Tit Albreht, adviser to the director of the Republic of Slovenia's Institute of Public Health, gave an overview of health care regulations in the EU, and explained how all its citizens have free access to emergency care anywhere in the bloc.



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