The Diet has started deliberating bills to create a government organization to promote consumers’ rights. It was Mr. Yasuo Fukuda, as prime minister, who first proposed establishing a Consumer Agency. Related bills submitted to the Diet have languished for 5 1/2 months. Clearly they were pushed aside by the global recession and by political maneuvering by the ruling and opposition forces over the possible dissolution of the Lower House.

While the Diet was inactive, the problem of tainted imported rice surfaced. And in September 2008, an infant boy in Hyogo Prefecture choked to death on “konnyaku” jelly. It is said that konnyaku jelly has led to 17 deaths since 1996. Yet government ministries say existing laws do not empower them to cope with the problem. Such incidents show that a government organization dedicated to the protection of consumers is indispensable.

The government proposes setting up a Consumer Agency as an external organ of the Cabinet Office, to centralize information on problems with food and other products. Local governments would have to notify the agency as soon as serious incidents came to their attention. Companies that did not comply with an order to recall problem products could be fined up to ¥100 million.

Meanwhile, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan proposes that a Consumer Rights Board be established as an independent organ outside the Cabinet. Existing consumer life centers across the nation would come under the board’s wing.

Both proposals have weak points. A Consumer Agency would be staffed by workers now working for existing government ministries. These workers might continue to have loyalty to the ministries. The DPJ proposal, on the other hand, envisages turning up to 10,000 advisers working for consumer life centers into national public servants. This could see a Consumer Rights Board develop into a fat organization.

Both the ruling and opposition parties agree that the traditional “producers first” principle must give way to “consumers first.” They should strike a meaningful compromise for the benefit of consumers.

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