A panel of the Cabinet Office on Nov. 25 made public a report on a scandal involving the reselling of contaminated rice for human consumption, which had surfaced in September 2008. The report said officials of the farm ministry lacked a sense of responsibility for their role in ensuring the safety of food for people.
As a result, the ministry has disciplined 25 high-ranking officials. The government now should strive to restore people’s trust in food safety by taking concrete action. The nation has seen a series of food safety-related scandals since January 2008, including contaminated “gyoza” dumplings imported from China and falsified labels for eel and other products from China that made them look like they originated in Japan.
The rice, contaminated with pesticide residues and mold toxin, was part of accumulated “minimum access” stocks imported from China, Vietnam and other countries under 1994 world trade rules. The farm ministry sold the rice on the condition that it be used for non-edible purposes only. But Mikasa Foods in Osaka and a few other companies resold the rice, knowing it would be used for human consumption. About 390 entities bought the rice and some of them, including shochu liquor and snack makers, had to recall their products.
The panel’s report said that while the farm ministry’s General Food Policy Bureau was aware of potential health hazards from the rice, it gave priority to disposing of it by sale rather than to ensuring safety. It criticized the bureau’s high-ranking officials for taking no effective measures to prevent the resale of the rice for human consumption. In fact, farm ministry officials inspected Mikasa Foods 96 times in five years but failed to notice irregularities. It is very likely that the inspections were just a formality. The report also called on successive farm ministers and vice ministers to reflect on their actions.
The ministry should take the findings of its November survey to heart. Forty-one percent of those surveyed said they distrust the ministry’s measures to ensure food safety against 37 percent who do trust them.
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