In an effort to curtail surging vegetable imports to Japan, the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry will effectively introduce curbs on the volume of products that are permitted to clear quarantine, ministry sources said Thursday.

According to the sources, if violations of the law, such as soil remaining on the produce, are spotted, Japan will call on the exporting country to impose restrictions on exports.

These steps are likely to be criticized by vegetable exporting nations, including China and South Korea, observers said.

Farm ministry sources said the moves were inevitable, as repeated calls for exporting countries to voluntarily reduce the flow of vegetables have so far proved ineffective.

The ministry will issue directives to quarantine stations nationwide calling for the implementation of “appropriate procedures in the quarantine of imported vegetables,” the sources said.

This move is aimed at tightening checks on imported vegetables given “the rise in consumer concerns over their safety as the volume of such vegetables entering Japan increases,” they added.

Specifically, the ministry plans to set daily limits on the amount of fresh vegetables that can clear quarantine at ports and airports where the import of fresh vegetables is rising dramatically.

The daily maximum amount will be based on the average number of specimens checked during the two months that saw the highest vegetable imports in each of the past three years.

Even if requests for inspections exceed this ceiling, quarantine officials will leave the checks for the following day or later, citing physical limitations on handling items, according to ministry sources. Should imports be found to be contaminated with dirt or other banned plants, the number of quarantine samples taken from the same exporter will be doubled for the next batch. In the event of legal violations, Japan will ask the exporting country to not issue certificates of inspection to the exporter, the ministry sources said.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party insists that vegetable imports be restricted to keep farmers, the party’s major supporters, on side ahead of the House of Councilors election in July.

Vegetable imports have been rising rapidly in recent years. Imports of fresh vegetables came to 925,510 tons in 2000, a 1.5-fold increase from 1996. In the same period, imports grew 2.7 times from China and 5.2 times from South Korea.

Aside from the new import restriction plan, Tokyo is considering invoking temporary “safeguard” limits on imports of three kinds of Chinese farm products — leeks, raw “shiitake” mushrooms and rushes — under rules set by the World Trade Organization.

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