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The sudden exit this month of six of the 12 members of an expert group on food safety has shaken trust in the government’s Food Safety Commission, as those who left were regarded by consumer organizations as cautious about lifting the ban on U.S. beef imports.

The expert group on prions — the abnormal protein regarded as the cause of mad cow disease — falls under the Food Safety Commission, which was created in July 2003 and is part of the Cabinet Office.

The expert group is headed by Yasuhiro Yoshikawa, 59, a professor at the University of Tokyo.

The ban on U.S. beef was reinstated after backbone, a risk material for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, was found in one of the first shipments from the United States after they were resumed in December.

With the departure of the six, the “fairness and neutrality” of the Food Safety Commission are being called into question.

At a coffee shop in Tokyo in January, Yoshikawa asked Kiyotoshi Kaneko, 48, who was then the acting head of the group and a professor at Tokyo Medical College, to remain.

Kaneko would later say: “A measure revised to ease the inspection of all domestic cattle led to the resumption of imports of U.S.-produced beef (even though the domestic measure originally had nothing to do with imports). As a result, misleading explanations were given to the people. So I decided I had to show responsibility and not continue.”

Kaneko declined to be reappointed to the expert panel.

Another group member who quit, Morikazu Shinagawa, 65, former head of the Prion Disease Research Center at the National Institute of Animal Health, said, “The only conclusions reached are those convenient to the administration. I can no longer belong to such a group.”

Distrust among group members began to emerge in September 2004 when it issued an interim report about domestic measures against mad cow.

A part of the report said, “It is difficult to discover infected cattle less than 20 months old,” a statement which had been rejected as “scientifically groundless” in the process of deliberations and whose deletion Yoshikawa, the panel head, made public at a news conference.

However, the government officials in the secretariat that controls the expert group, without consulting Yoshikawa, left the phrase intact and presented it as the expert group’s conclusion.

“I did not know because I was not shown” the report before it was made public, Yoshikawa said.

Afterward, an official at the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry visited the office of a group member who objected to the government’s stance regarding deliberations on the resumption of U.S. beef imports and put “blatant pressure” on him, saying, “You are receiving research funds” from the government, a source close to the matter said.

Other group members were instructed by phone from a member of the Food Safety Commission to change their opinions.

Kazuya Yamanouchi, 74, a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo who repeatedly made critical remarks in the media about the Food Safety Commission, was forced to resign from the expert group.

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