Commentary: The Latest Stain on Japan's Health Record: Mad Cow

By Irene M. Kunii

See, hear, and speak no evil. That has been the modus operandi of Japanese bureaucrats for decades. Time and again, state mandarins have turned a blind eye to environmental and health disasters (table). Instead of acting decisively, they have ignored or downplayed problems--out of ineptitude or to protect business interests. One of the most egregious cases arose in 1955, when hundreds of babies died after drinking formula made from powdered milk contaminated with arsenic.

The newest crisis fits the old pattern: A case of mad cow disease has cropped up. As the tale unfolds, it's clear that officials had plenty of opportunity to ensure the safety of the meat supply, but didn't use it. Japan's public thus has another reason to distrust civil servants. That's unfortunate; Tokyo needs the confidence of its citizens as it tries to fix the economy.

INACTION. Instead, the mad cow affair is showing the government at its worst. Authorities might have thought they were helping Japan's $10 billion beef and dairy industry by moving slowly against the brain-wasting disease bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), caused by a rogue protein found in feed made from sick animals. Instead, the foot-dragging helped cause beef sales at supermarkets to fall 30% to 70% since Sept. 10, when Japan became the first country outside Europe to report a case of BSE. "The bureaucrats have only themselves to blame," says Michiko Kamiyama, a lawyer who works on food-safety issues. "If they had taken the right steps in 1996, this never would have occurred."

It was in 1996 that Britain confirmed its first case of the fatal ailment known as new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which humans get from eating BSE-contaminated meat. (So far, there have been 110 confirmed human cases, all but four in Britain.) Japan had imported BSE-contaminated meat-and-bone meal from Britain and other European countries to use as a protein supplement in livestock feed. Instead of banning such imports outright after 1996, Japan issued an administrative guidance instructing producers not to use British bone meal in cattle feed. Not everyone heeded the toothless directive: At least 8,000 cows in 18 regions in Japan were given the feed. The result: one infected cow--and probably many others.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has publicly chided the agriculture and health ministries. "We will check to see [if there was a coverup] and find those responsible," he told a televised town hall meeting last week. Koizumi should go further and use this crisis to push for better accountability. One way would be to set up an independent watchdog group to keep tabs on regulators.

Even though they have finally instituted a ban on feed containing high-risk animal parts and have launched an inspection of herds, Japan's food-safety monitors still don't seem to take the threat seriously. Junshi Umetsu, a senior official in charge of BSE countermeasures, insists that "this problem has been blown out of proportion." Umetsu says the chance of a Japanese cow becoming infected with BSE is 1 in 30,000, while the probability of human infection is extremely low.

Maybe so. But consumer groups counter that bureaucrats have failed, yet again, to conduct a thorough check. Shunsuke Funase, author of a new book on mad cow disease, contends that BSE may have emerged in Japan five years ago. "The majority of farmers didn't hear of the term BSE until this year," he says. "Yet some report that they have sent staggering cows to the slaughterhouse." If that's true and the disease spreads, bureaucrats will have a lot to answer for. It's time the government taught its regulators how to regulate.

Kunii covers Japanese business from Tokyo.

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