• KYODO, REUTERS

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Two companies said Thursday they were recalling all undelivered cloth masks they had supplied under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s mask handout program aimed at tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, after numerous complaints of tainted products earlier this month.

Trading house Itochu Corp. and pharmaceutical and medical equipment maker Kowa Co. said they had also found similar problems with masks still in their inventories.

The government’s effort to distribute protective cloth masks in its battle against the new coronavirus has been marred by complaints about stains, insects and mold, fueling further concern that the government has botched its handling of the pandemic.

Health minister Katsunobu Kato told a news conference Tuesday that the ministry had confirmed 7,870 defective masks were delivered to 143 municipalities. The ministry also suspended deliveries the same day.

Itochu and Kowa are among four companies tapped to provide face masks to pregnant women and general households under Abe’s initiative, which aims to give each household two cloth masks amid shortages due to the spread of COVID-19.

The two companies said they had procured the cloth masks from overseas and would strengthen quality-control measures to prevent similar problems from recurring. The government has been forced to replace some masks because of the complaints.

On April 14, ahead of the deliveries to general households, the health ministry started distributing around 500,000 cloth masks to pregnant women through handouts at municipal offices and by shipping them to medical and nursing facilities.

But the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare was soon flooded with complaints about tainted masks, including some contaminated with human hair.

Deliveries of cloth masks to ordinary households began on April 17 in Tokyo, with the government planning to distribute them to some 50 million households across the country by the end of May.

The health ministry has asked three companies, Kowa, Itochu and Matsuoka Corporation to manufacture masks, but it does not know whose masks were defective, a ministry official said.

“We have requested all three companies tighten inspections of masks,” the official said.

The mask handout initiative has drawn derision on social media, earning the nickname “Abenomask” — a pun on Abe’s “Abenomics” economic policy mix.

The policy has also been met with skepticism due to its hefty cost of ¥46.6 billion ($430 million) despite the relative ineffectiveness of cloth masks in preventing coronavirus infection.

The program is part of an emergency economic package worth over ¥100 trillion, designed to support the economy as it deals with the impacts of COVID-19.

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