Import food: Do inspections allay fears?


Public concern over imported food is on the rise, especially produce from China.

Even if consumers want to avoid imported food, they have few options: Japan’s food self-sufficiency rate is only 40 percent, according to a 2006 study by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

It may be easy, for example, to avoid products clearly labeled as imported, but many domestic food-processing firms use imported ingredients not well labeled.

What are the dangers of imported food and what is the government doing to bolster inspections?

Following are basic questions and answers on imported food in Japan:

How much food is imported to Japan and where does it come from?

Japan imported about 32 million tons of food in 2007. China was the largest source, with 563,847 declared products, followed by 197,507 tons from the United States, 196,566 tons from France and 116,867 tons from Thailand.

China exports mainly frozen foods, liliaceous vegetables, water-boiled vegetables, salted vegetables and cooked meat products.

How are food inspections carried out?

Quarantine stations choose products to examine based on declarations from the importers.

If products have past records of violating the Food Sanitation Law, or an importer or product is new to Japan, the government will order the importer to provide a sample to an authorized inspection firm.

Importers are not allowed to sell the products sent to inspection firms unless they clear the checks.

Quarantine stations follow “Monitoring Inspection” procedures that are designed to detect dangerous food products that have no past records of violations. The regime is designed to spot pesticide residue, illegal additives, microbes and ingredients that may pose a danger.

The ministry compiles annual statistics to gauge potential problematic foods that may contain banned substances.

Based on the ministry’s statistics, products are sampled and the rest can be distributed to the market without waiting for the results.

However, Mitsue Kondo of the health ministry’s food safety department said most importers of nonperishable products, including frozen food and confectionery, do not distribute products until they receive inspection results.

Is the inspection system tough enough to keep tainted foods off store shelves?

No it is not, said Masataka Ishiguro, chairman of food analysis at Japan Family Farmers Movement.

When tainted “gyoza” (meat and vegetable) dumplings led to food poisoning outbreaks last winter, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda said the government would increase food inspectors.

However, only seven inspectors were added, bringing to total at the nation’s quarantine stations to 341, “which is not enough,” Ishiguro said.

According to Kondo, the food safety department wants the government to employ 55 more examiners at quarantine stations.

As concerns about imported food rise, she said, the department is trying to reflect opinions from politicians and the public who feel more sanitation inspectors are needed to carry out extensive checks.

Inspections were carried out on 204,578 products in 2007, accounting for 11.2 percent of all declared imported foods.

“This means 88.8 percent of imported food is distributed without being examined,” he said.

Monitoring Inspection procedures were applied to only 3.2 percent of the declared food products in 2007, Ishiguro said.

“The ministry should conduct more extensive Monitoring Inspection so they can detect more tainted products.”

Is food grown in China, regardless of whether it is imported to Japan, particularly dangerous?

Comparatively speaking, no.

Despite the negative impression Japanese consumers may have, food from China does not have a high rate of failing import standards compared with other countries, according to Junichi Kowaka, president of Safety of Our Foods and Life Co., known for his book “Taberuna Kiken” (“Don’t eat, it’s dangerous”).

China’s food products had a 0.54 percent violation rate of sanitation laws in 2007, lower than other top food exporters.

The violation rate of U.S. food products was 0.64 percent, Thai foods 0.64 percent and French foods 0.55 percent.

Kowaka said the figures show foods from other countries can also be dangerous.

“Consumers should note that foods imported from the U.S. are not always safe, either. In Japan, postharvest chemicals are not used, but they are used in the U.S. to prevent food from turning bad,” he said.

However, he said consumers still need to be careful about food from China because the country’s safety standards are not maintained in a uniform manner.

In 2007, food from China logged the highest number of violations, at 409, followed by food from Vietnam, at 126, and from the U.S., at 126.

“Don’t eat if the food smells strange” Kowaka said. “If it tastes strange, spit it out.”