What the label doesn't say

Scandals about deception in product labeling have been in the news of late, with both the expiry dates and the origins of dairy and meat products called into question. While not as big a news item, the labeling standards for whale meat take deception to further, murkier depths — and to dangerous ones.

First, the cetaceans most commonly killed around Japan are not whales but dolphins and porpoises, yet all the meat from these catches that makes it to market is labeled “kujira” (whale). In fact the market term hides a whole array of species — minke whale, sperm whale, blue whale, humpback whale, fin whale, Baird’s beaked whale, short-finned pilot whale, Risso’s dolphin, bottlenose dolphin, striped dolphin and Dall’s porpoise. (I guess iruka is seen by marketers as conveying the wrong image — few people would consider eating the friendly creature that starred in “Flipper”).

More worrisome — ethics, morals and “Flipper” aside — are recent studies that suggest eating dolphin meat is bad for you. Researchers at Hokkaido University reported in the March 23 issue of New Scientist magazine that they detected amounts of mercury beyond safety levels in processed food labeled “kujira” but actually made from dolphin meat.

While 24 of the contaminated meat samples were sold in Wakayama, it was the Tokyo samples that were most alarming. These contained 2,000 micrograms of mercury per gram — that’s 5,000 times higher than the safety level of 0.4 micrograms of mercury per gram.

Earlier research confirms the dangers of contamination. Studies published during the 1980s and 1990s in the academic journals Archives of Environmental Contaminant Toxicology, Marine Environmental Research, Chemosphere and Toxicological Environmental Chemistry showed that there are a host of other contaminants out there — not just in dolphin meat but in all cetacean meat.

In one 1999 study, published in 2000 in volume 47 of the journal Organohalogen Compounds, Koichi Hamaguchi of the Daiichi College of Pharmaceutical Sciences in Fukuoka and his colleagues sampled cetacean products sold across Japan — including sashimi, canned and cooked meat, whale bacon and blubber strips — and found them to contain not only high levels of mercury but PCBs, DDT and other pesticides.

A number of toxic chemicals are fat-soluble and are concentrated in mammals in their body fat — in cetaceans this means toxins accumulate particularly in the blubber. It was not surprising, therefore, that Hamaguchi and colleagues found bacon/blubber samples showing higher levels of dioxins and PCBs than meat samples. Of special interest is that samples from toothed cetaceans were more heavily loaded with toxins than those from baleen whales, and baleen whales from the North Pacific were more toxic than those from the southern hemisphere.

Hamaguchi and colleagues concluded that “cetacean products such as bacon/blubber sold in Japan are contaminated to an unacceptable degree for human consumption. Even one meal [about 50 g] of cetacean bacon/blubber per month may exceed the tolerable daily intake . . . set by Ministry of Health and Welfare, Japan . . . Therefore, consumers should be advised that cetacean products, especially fatty products from North Pacific mammals could cause adverse health effects.”

Whales are susceptible to toxic chemicals and heavy metals because they are at the top of the ocean’s food chain. Now consider the coastal waters of Japan, a particularly heavy consumer of agrochemicals and the world leader in dioxin production. Not the safest place for cetaceans, or consumers of cetaceans, is it?

But what about Norway’s waters? Much to conservationists’ concern, Japan recently announced plans to import Norwegian minke whale products in apparent defiance of the 1986 Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species ban on trade in whale products. What should be of concern to consumers is the fact that a study by German scientists at the prestigious FoBIG Institute in Freiburg, published last month, found that whale blubber stored in Norway for export to Japan is contaminated with halogenated-organic contaminants such as PCBs, DDT and brominated flame-retardants — and is therefore “unfit for human consumption.”

Reservations about whaling itself aside, clearly, stronger regulation of both labeling standards and of pollution levels of meats on sale in Japan is urgently required in order to protect customer rights and health.

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