The trustworthiness of the Food Safety Commission appears to be in jeopardy. Half of the 12-member panel under the commission that was tasked with assessing the safety of North American beef resigned as of March 31. The six who quit were regarded by consumer groups as being cautious about the idea of resuming beef imports from the United States and Canada. Six new members were appointed as of April 1. A full explanation about what led to their resignation should be the first step to regaining trust in the commission and the panel.
In May 2003, a case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), popularly known as mad cow disease, was found in Canada, triggering a ban on beef imports from Canada. The commission was established as an independent body under the Cabinet Office in July that year in response to the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry’s failure to prevent the emergence of BSE in Japan due to its lax approach to the use of powdered meat and bone as cattle feed. The 12-member experts panel on prions was set up in August the same year. Prions are abnormal protein believed to cause BSE.
In December 2003, BSE was found in a U.S. cow that had been born in Canada, leading to a ban on beef imports from the U.S. The panel started comparing the risk from eating North American beef with the risk from eating Japanese beef in May 2005. The government then lifted the ban on imports of U.S. and Canadian beef on Dec. 12 on the basis of the final report of the prions panel that had been issued four days before. On Jan. 20, 2006, however, the government was forced to re-impose the ban on imports of U.S. beef because spinal-column bone, which is classified as a special-risk material, was found in veal shipped from a meatpacker in Brooklyn, New York.
An explanation for the resignation of the six panel members has been offered: Since the panel members were not hired for a specific period of service, a two-year term and an age limit of less than 70 years were introduced, and all members of the panel, except those who had earlier expressed a desire to resign, were contacted to confirm their intention to stay. Yet this explanation is not sufficient enough to suppress a lingering impression among some of the public that the experts who were cautious about resumption of North American beef imports may have been removed from the panel. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who has the ultimate power to appoint the panel members, needs to give a more detailed explanation. This is even more necessary because the panel’s discussion on resuming beef imports was an important test for the whole commission to know whether it can pursue truly neutral, scientific debates free from political pressures.
Some of the experts who resigned reportedly suspect that the panel debates were manipulated to lead them to a conclusion the government wanted. Some panel members apparently started to distrust the management of the panel in September 2004 when an interim report about domestic measures to prevent BSE was issued. A phrase in the report — “It is difficult to discover infected cattle less than 20 months old” — had been rejected as scientifically groundless during deliberations, and Mr. Yasuhiro Yoshikawa, the panel head and professor at the University of Tokyo, declared at a news conference that the phrase would be deleted. But government officials of the secretariat, without consulting Mr. Yoshikawa, made public the report with the phrase kept intact.
There is also an opinion that taking note of the conditions for beef imports to resume, which the government imposed on the panel’s deliberations, impeded proper scientific discussion. The government inserted two conditions: Cattle slaughtered for beef exports to Japan are to be less than 21 months old and special-risk materials such as brains and spinal cords, in which prions are more likely to exist, are to be removed. The panel concluded in its Dec. 8, 2005, report that if those conditions are met, the difference in the risk of human BSE infection between North American beef and domestic beef would be extremely small.
The resignation of Mr. Kiyotoshi Kaneko, a professor at Tokyo Medical College who served as the panel’s acting head, is a great loss. He made great efforts to coordinate views of those who are cautious about resumption of North American beef imports and those who were positive about the resumption.
There will come a time when the prions panel must resume discussions. The resignation of the six members and other things that happened in the panel make it difficult for the public to believe the panel’s neutrality and scientific reliability. At the very least, panel members who resigned should be allowed to speak out about the content of the panel’s discussions and the way they were managed.
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