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Japan will send two investigators to the Netherlands over the weekend to investigate allegations that a Dutch-made animal fat product may be the source of mad cow disease in Japan, Farm minister Tsutomu Takebe said Friday.

Takebe said the two will visit a Dutch factory Saturday where the animal fat in question was manufactured. They will remain in the Netherlands until next Saturday.

One of the experts is from the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry’s livestock division and the other works at the Fertilizer and Feed Inspection Station, a public administrative body under the ministry’s jurisdiction.

Four cows in Japan have been confirmed as being infected with mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, since September. All four bovines were found to have been fed the same milk substitute.

A plant in Takasaki, Gunma Prefecture, used the Dutch product as an ingredient in its milk substitute.

The ministry earlier said in a report that it “cannot dismiss as totally groundless” the view that the Dutch product could have caused BSE to breakout in Japan.

The investigators will also exchange views with Dutch government officials in charge of livestock sanitary affairs, the officials said. It will be the second time for Tokyo to send experts to the Netherlands in connection with the outbreak of the brain-wasting disease.

A total of 21 cases of BSE have been confirmed in the Netherlands since 1997.

Mislabeling penalties

The House of Councilors passed a bill Friday designed to crack down on deliberate food mislabeling by producers with the introduction of prison terms and a sharp increase in the maximum fines faced by perpetrators.

The bill, which revises the Japanese Agricultural Standards law, introduces prison terms of up to one year and raises the maximum fine to 1 million yen from the current 500,000 yen for individuals and up to 100 million yen for companies in cases of false labeling.

The revised law is expected to take effect in July.

The government drafted the bill in response to a string of meat mislabeling incidents since late last year.

The discovery of Japan’s first case of mad cow disease in September shed light on the fact that a number of companies, including Snow Brand Foods Co., have long deceived consumers by marketing cheaper products as high-quality food.

The Upper House also enacted a separate bill the same day to deal with mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy. The new law requires cattle farmers to submit the carcasses of cows that die at age 24 months or older for BSE testing. The requirement takes effect next April.

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