The safety of the nation’s food has recently been called into question following the discovery of StarLink corn in a shipment of corn imported from the United States.

Some scientists think that StarLink, a genetically modified corn developed by the French biotech firm Aventis CropScience S.A. to repel harmful insects, can cause allergic reactions in humans because it contains a built-in pesticide that the human body does not readily break down.

The U.S. is the only country currently producing StarLink corn, and even there it can be used only in animal feed. In mid-September 2000, however, this corn was also found in tacos sold at U.S. stores.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency subsequently revoked the license allowing Aventis CropScience S.A. to grow or plant StarLink corn for commercial purposes, and federal health officials were investigating the claims of 44 Americans who said they had experienced intense itching, nausea and other allergic symptoms after eating foods containing StarLink corn.

Japan is the world’s largest importer of corn, using it in a variety of products, including confectionery, bread and beer as well as livestock feed, and until the StarLink scare Japan relied on the U.S. for 95 percent of the corn it buys from overseas. It is also one of the largest importers of genetically modified organisms, and the Japanese government has approved seven kinds of GM corn for human consumption and eight kinds for use in livestock feed.

Tests conducted by a private organization that opposes GM food, however, detected unapproved GMOs in several types of snacks and livestock feed on the market in Japan. The group reported the test results to both the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry and the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry.

Although StarLink corn is not one of the government-approved types of GM corn, separate inspections conducted by both ministries found it mixed with other types of corn in a recent shipment from the U.S. The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry announced that StarLink corn, already recalled in the U.S., had been found in 12 tons of imported powdered corn intended for human consumption. And the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry revealed that StarLink corn had been detected in 0.5 percent of samples taken from imported corn to be used in livestock feed.

If we do not allow GM corn produced in the U.S. to be imported to Japan, one consequence is clear: The price of imported corn will rise. The U.S. normally exports to Japan about 16.5 million tons of corn a year, but those exports have plummeted since StarLink corn was detected. At the same time, the import prices of corn from South America and elsewhere are rising rapidly.

There are four reasons that the StarLink corn reached Japan, and the first is that the relevant government guidelines are not legally binding. To ensure the safety of GMOs in Japan, private companies first have to apply for government permission to sell products containing them. Unfortunately, the safety standards that are followed when the government considers these applications are based on the very loose “substantial equality” principles established by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Another reason this unauthorized GMO reached Japan is that no third-party inspection is required here. The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, which is in charge of food safety, had not developed a system for detecting it. And the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, which oversees livestock feed, did not even conduct an inspection because, in the words of one official, it did not receive an application from a company wanting to sell StarLink corn.

There is also an inconsistency in the Japanese government’s regulations: Japan does not permit StarLink corn to be used in livestock feed but does allow the import of U.S. meat made from animals that have been fed the corn. Even though the U.S. government is still trying to determine the safety of StarLink corn for human consumption, it has already approved the corn for use in livestock feed — and Japan has imported this inconsistency along with the meat.

A fourth reason the GM corn reached Japan is that even though the U.S. government was instructed not to allow the export of StarLink corn to Japan, some slipped through the U.S. inspection system. The U.S. government has now said it will review its system of inspecting corn bound for Japan.

The discovery of genetically modified StarLink corn in imports to Japan uncovered serious shortcomings in international rules governing the trade of the grain, and it is our generation that must reduce the risks of adverse consequences due to genetically modified organisms before these consequences afflict the next generations. I therefore propose that Japan take the following steps.

* Create unified regulations

Because Japan depends heavily on imported crops, it needs to create unified regulations that can be applied to imports from all countries as quickly as possible. Although GMOs are not now being produced in Japan, many unapproved GMOs from overseas (e.g., rapeseed and pumpkins) have appeared in local markets. Japan currently responds to each country’s violations of its standards on a case-by-case basis because there is no unified law governing the import of GMOs.

* Amend the Food Sanitation Law to allow the government to take legal action

Japan’s Food Sanitation Law needs to allow the government to take legal action against violators and to order product recalls. The law is scheduled to be revised as of April to forbid both the import and the sale of GM food that has not been properly inspected, but the revision is insufficient in two respects. One is that the makers of only 24 food products sold in Japan, a few of which contain components produced in the U.S., will be obligated to declare that GMOs were used in making their products. The other is that fines for violations will be small, no more than 100,000 yen (about $850).

* Strengthen its inspection system

Japan urgently needs to strengthen its inspection system. Japan should not rely on inspections in the exporting countries but must conduct its own inspections here if it is to prevent unapproved GM crops from entering the country.

* Make an international rule requiring inspection by the exporting countries Even if Japan’s inspection system is strengthened, unapproved GM food may still end up on the domestic market. In international organizations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization, Japan should therefore take the initiative in making an international rule obligating countries to inspect their agricultural products before exporting them to countries banning unauthorized GM organisms.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Japan’s food self-sufficiency rate in crops was only 27 percent in 1999. Because Japan does not produce enough food to feed its population, it relies on food imports and therefore probably cannot avoid consuming unauthorized GMOs.

Thus, while the country will benefit from biotechnology, it must establish strict safety standards and monitor both the domestic and international legal systems.

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