Hardly a week goes by without the emergence of some new scandal in the Japanese food industry. But whether it’s the use of illegal additives or the mislabeling of imported meat as domestic, the outcome is the same: further breakdown in trust between consumers and the farmers and companies involved in producing our food.
In response to the growing public outcry, the Japanese government has announced plans to form an independent food commission and introduce new food safety laws. But mistrust of food products is not something that can be restored easily through legislation.
“Now that we have had all these problems, Japanese people will start taking a lot more interest in the food they eat,” says Eiji Kotani, whose Hokkaido-based company Gallagher Age supplies fences and other hardware to livestock and dairy farmers who put their cows out to pasture. “They’ll ask themselves, ‘What kind of cows are giving us our milk?’ And they’ll really start to care.”
The popular image of Hokkaido as a green and pleasant land dotted with happily grazing cows and sheep is misleading. It may be green and pleasant, but most livestock are shut up in sheds, eating feed imported from abroad. Of course, it’s not something that producers of meat and dairy products are keen to advertise on their packaging. But the proportion of livestock farmers in Hokkaido who actually use pasture-farming methods is less than 5 percent.
“Japan has a lot of grass and good water but we are not using it,” explains Kotani.
After visiting New Zealand to study pasture-farming methods there, Kotani realized that a similar business model could also be applied in Hokkaido. While the productivity of cows put out to pasture can be only half that of animals reared using the intensive, shed-based method popular in the United States and Japan, costs are also much lower Emainly because the farmer no longer has to buy large amounts of expensive imported feed. So in the mid-1980s Kotani traveled around Hokkaido to tell farmers about what he regarded as a revolutionary method that was sustainable, environmentally friendly and could also preserve profit margins.
He met with a lot of hostility, which on one occasion almost ended in a brawl. But he persevered, and orders for pasture-farming equipment started to roll in. Up in Wakkanai, on the northern tip of Hokkaido, one farmer, Choichi Ujimoto, found that a couple of years after adopting the system, his profits were actually increasing. As word of his success spread, others started to get interested.
Ujimoto now has 3,000 cattle grazing on 1,500 hectares of land. In response to customer requests, he doesn’t use chemical fertilizers or genetically modified feed. And he travels around Japan to markets and food fairs with the aim of explaining his methods to others in the industry as well as the public. He also maintains a Web site for the same purpose ( www.omosiro.souya.net.ne.jp ).
“Since BSE, consumers realize that there is a link between their own health and cows’ health. But it is not just a question of production methods,” he argues. “We, the producers, also have to make an effort to communicate what we are doing to the public.”
Masayuki Ikeda, neurologist and co-director of the research department at the National Saigata Hospital in Niigata, also believes that communication at every level Ebetween food producers, processors, distributors, retailers and consumers Emust be improved. He says that this is one of the major lessons to be learned from BSE and the recent series of food-related scandals. But he cautions against blaming anyone in particular. “Rather than forcing a politician to resign, they should be made responsible for changing the system,” Ikeda says.
Ikeda is now urging the government to improve the flow of information to consumers by staffing its new food commission with public relations experts from private-sector companies. Once adequate information is made available, consumers should then use it to make informed decisions, says Ikeda. “People who expect a zero-risk situation [in relation to food safety] are not being realistic. Consumers must study so that they can analyze the risks and weigh their options.”
Risk analysis and communication are now regarded as increasingly important in Japan, partly because, according to 2000 data from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, 60 percent of Japan’s calorie intake is imported from overseas. With many products, this makes traceability an almost impossible goal. For those who want to know more about the origin of what they are eating, however, buying locally produced goods can offer some peace of mind.
Sales of the enticingly named “grass milk,” from Kotani’s farm in Tobetsu, about an hour’s drive from Sapporo, are rising fast. Recently, local restaurants have started to use the hand-delivered milk to make desserts. It’s certainly a little more expensive than your average carton, but milk this sweet doesn’t come in cardboard packs from a supermarket. And if anyone in the community wants to check out Kotani’s production methods, they can pop down to the farm and see for themselves.
Further east, in the town of Ashoro, a group of women is planning to start a similar enterprise. With support from the council and a nearby cheese factory, they’re learning how to make their own cheese from local, grass-fed milk cows. Once sales begin, the mama-san of an Ashoro bar intends to serve it up as an accompaniment to customers’ whiskey and beer.
“Rather than selling to Tokyo supermarkets, we want local people to eat our products,” explains Mitsuo Sakurai of the town council’s agriculture and forestry division. “Then those products also become a reason for people to come and visit our town.”
Sakurai works closely with local farmers who are trying to switch over to pasture farming, organizing research groups and providing technical support. He stresses that it’s not an easy change to make: “If you don’t study properly, you make mistakes. You can’t just put the cows in the fields.”
The problems facing Ashoro grass farmers include how to pump water to pastures high up mountainsides and how to prevent animals from wandering onto roads. Consequently, the number of farms using the method is still limited. Sakurai accepts that it may not be suitable for all livestock and dairy farmers, but he does see it as a way of exploiting natural capital.
“When I visited New Zealand, my impression was that grass is seen as a resource; something you can make money from. That is what we want our farmers to realize,” he explains.
Not surprisingly, the natural, healthy aspects of pasture-farmed products are viewed as a major selling point. Sakurai says the high level of vitamin E in the milk means it can be marketed as a product that could benefit older people.
In Ashoro, some 22 farmers are planning to form a co-op to sell milk in larger quantities. But the council isn’t content to stop there: Officials are talking to Meiji Dairies Corp., which has strong connections with the town, hoping to persuade the company that there’s a market for products using grass-farmed milk.
Sakurai is realistic, admitting that results won’t come quickly. Yet Japanese consumers appear to be increasingly willing to embrace alternative farming methods. They are responding to the globalized food industry and the problems that have arisen from it by taking a growing interest in food produced using organic and other nonintensive methods Eso-called slow food.
“What is good for cows doesn’t change,” argues Ujimoto. “It is what humans do to them that makes them ill .EE And if cows aren’t healthy, our meat and milk won’t be healthy.”
Whether or not the big food companies would agree, changing consumer sentiment will likely encourage more and more farmers to go slow.