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There’s no way of stopping the poisoned food sent from abroad

by Philip Brasor

Last week, when the Chinese government sent five experts to talk with Japanese counterparts about those pesticide-tainted frozen gyoza (Chinese dumplings) imported from their country, the head of the team, Li Chunfeng, expressed concern over the feelings of Japanese consumers. He also offered a veiled caution to people who might take advantage of those feelings.

“I believe the mass media will carry out objective and fair reporting (of the incident),” he said to the press at Narita airport.

Though the tabloids and weeklies have demonstrated a willingness to stimulate the public’s latent anti-China sentiments, some government officials have been equally indiscreet regarding the matter.

“I’m afraid there was a rather loose safety awareness on the Chinese side,” Nobutaka Machimura, chief Cabinet secretary of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, told reporters before any investigation had started.

Former Foreign Minister Taro Aso said, “(Japanese) agricultural cooperatives should thank China” for the poisoning incident, since as a result “great value has been added (to Japanese products).”

Aso may have been exercising his notably warped sense of humor, but his statement nevertheless betrayed ignorance of both the particulars of the case and the subject itself. As the media has reported during its frenzied coverage, Japan can’t survive without imports from China. As much as Aso would like to think that Japanese people can turn to domestic producers as a substitute, they can’t. TV Asahi ran an in-depth report on how Japan’s food distribution industry is driving Japanese farmers out of business. One said he has given up growing certain vegetables because of rising fuel costs. Wholesalers won’t buy his produce if it’s above a certain price because they are under pressure from major supermarket chains to keep prices as low as possible.

For better or worse, the government’s decades-long policy of sacrificing agricultural self-sufficiency for the sake of value-added exports has made Japan overwhelmingly dependent on foreign food suppliers. And despite the fuss over American beef several years ago, the government has done little in the way of building a structure for identifying and isolating unsafe food imports, be they processed or raw.

Given the huge amount of food that passes into Japan from overseas, it’s difficult to check everything thoroughly; with processed food it’s virtually impossible, since it would take an inordinate amount of time to check all the ingredients. Practically speaking, there is no way that tainted products can be completely prevented from entering Japan, but there is a way to minimize the damage that unsafe imports can cause.

As of the middle of last week, some 2,000 people had reported that they may have become sick from eating the gyoza in question, but only 10 cases in Chiba and Hyogo prefectures had been confirmed. A supermarket in Osaka also reported that it removed six packages of the same gyoza from freezer cases because of a sticky substance on the wrapping that was later found to contain the pesticide methamidophos. As NHK reported last week on “Closeup Gendai,” Japan has no bureaucratic mechanism in place to address this sort of situation. The United States has the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which coordinates data from public and private health entities to get a grasp on developing or potential health crises. Doctors are less likely to diagnose illnesses as being cases of food poisoning unless they have already been alerted to the possibility. That is why information about possible gyoza-related illnesses were reported after the presence of pesticide came to light in January. By that time any actual evidence of food poisoning was no longer available.

Though the Chinese government has labeled it irresponsible, the most prevalent media theory is that the poisoning was deliberate and probably took place in China, because once the products are sealed in boxes in China there is no way anyone can get to the food itself until it reaches retail outlets in Japan. Moreover, methamidophos is banned in Japan. It has also been banned in China, but only last year, which means it is still obtainable there.

If only some of the packages were tampered with, then the odds are that port inspections wouldn’t have discovered it since such inspections are performed randomly. However, any complaints about the product might have raised red flags had there been a CDC-like tracking system in place, as in the United States. On Tuesday, the Japanese Consumers’ Cooperative Union (COOP) announced that it had discovered large concentrations of a different pesticide in gyoza manufactured by the same Chinese company. COOP said it first received a complaint about the gyoza in November, even before the methamidophos-related illnesses occurred. If a central coordinating agency had been active at the time, the suspect gyoza might have been tested more effectively and the product recalled immediately.

Pundits have tried to come up with possible motives for the poisoning. One Chinese journalist told TBS that before new labor laws went into effect last year in China, many factory workers had been fired. The poisoning could have been a form of revenge. A rumor in China says that someone may have wanted to manipulate the price of Japan Tobacco stock, since JT is the company that imported the gyoza.

There is also talk about “food terrorism.” According to Tatsuya Kakita, a food-labeling expert interviewed by various media outlets, the poisoning incident broadcasts to the world the vulnerability of Japan’s food-import system. This is a matter that the Chinese government, which is about to host the Olympics, is understandably about. If someone in China with a grudge could poison Japanese consumers so easily from afar, could another person do the same to the meals of visiting athletes?