Food-inspection system has many holes

by and

Food inspectors and consumers on Thursday questioned the effectiveness of food importing regulations after large amounts of organophosphate in frozen “gyoza” dumplings made in China were blamed for sickening scores of people nationwide.

The health ministry meanwhile admitted that although frozen imported food is generally inspected for harmful or unauthorized ingredients, it is not checked for pesticides like the one that was found in the tainted meat and vegetable dumplings.

A spokesman for Japan Frozen Foods Inspection Corp., a government-designated food inspector, said it was the first time Japan has experienced a food-poisoning case of this type.

“This is an unprecedented case. We are not sure how such a high amount of pesticide could have gotten inside the dumplings,” spokesman Toshio Nagasaki told The Japan Times. “We have no source but to follow the media reports for information.”

The Food Sanitation Law requires all food importers to declare their products to the government. Samples are then inspected randomly at quarantine stations.

According to the Tokyo-based Japan Frozen Food Association, imported frozen food, excluding vegetables, amounted to 315,436 tons in 2006, including 200,634 tons from China.

Once traces of illegal chemicals and substances exceeding the legal limit are detected, the government orders the importer to have its product checked by inspection firms.

“There are about 60 to 70 inspection agencies similar to us,” JFFIC’s Nagasaki said, noting they are dispatched to ports and airports to obtain food samples.

Hundreds of products are checked on a daily basis at JFFIC, and importers are not allowed to sell the product unless it clears their inspection.

But while about 5 percent of frozen processed foods are checked for colon bacillus and illegal additives at the government’s quarantine stations, they are not tested for pesticide residue, according to the health ministry.

“It is technically too demanding to check frozen processed foods for pesticide residue, since specifying the questionable ingredient is near impossible,” said Naoki Yoshihara, an official at the ministry’s quarantine division.

For that reason, the government has had to rely on corporate responsibility in avoiding similar food poisonings, although representatives of the Japanese Consumers’ Co-Operative Union, which sold some of the tainted dumplings, claimed periodic checks revealed “no issues or high levels of pesticide residue” in their products.

“Ultimately, we must depend on them to import safe foods that meet the country’s legal guidelines,” the ministry’s Yoshihara said, because sampling all imported frozen processed food is not feasible.

The government official acknowledged that checks must be improved, but it is difficult to determine how until the cause of the tainted gyoza is specified.

On Wednesday, an official of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s health bureau suggested that the toxins may have been added only to certain products in the manufacturing process, instead of on a widespread basis.

But the tainted gyoza have already instigated serious concerns and cautions for food safety, especially for Chinese products, among consumers.

“I watched the news (about the incident) and thought it was terrible,” said a 55-year-old housewife shopping at a Daimaru Peacock supermarket in Minato Ward, Tokyo.

“I wonder if something like surprise safety examinations could be done,” she said. “I think Japanese companies should be more cautious.”

The woman said she doesn’t usually buy frozen food and is careful about buying Chinese products, adding she will be even more careful about food safety because of this incident.

Many consumers have also voiced concerns to the Japanese Consumers’ Co-Operative Union. According to its public relations, it received about 1,000 phone calls from consumers Wednesday regarding the incident.

A spokesman said the organization is currently apologizing to consumers and its member co-ops are focused on doing a thorough job of recalling and obtaining the returned products.

The ministry strengthened its checks on products that have previously exceeded the limits of illegal substances, and on products likely to be dangerous.