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Japan: Missing Pieces in Tainted Rice Scandal

The latest food scandal making headlines in Japan revolves on the nation's staple commodity: rice, one of only a small handful of foods for which the country achieves almost complete self-sufficiency. Central to the Japanese diet, rice has up until now been exempt from a stream of high-profile food scandals making headlines in recent years.

No more, it seems. On September 5th, news emerged that Osaka-based company Mikasa foods [三笠フーズ] had sold imported rice containing high levels of pesticide residue for domestic human consumption. Intended for glue manufacturing and other industrial purposes, Mikasa sold the rice to companies making rice-based products such as senbei crackers, shōchū liquor and miso paste, with details of the scandal ultimately implicating 380 different companies and reaching as far as hospitals, nursing homes and kindergartens. Immediate fallout includes over a million recalled bottles of shōchū and sake, an estimated 2 billion yen in losses, the resignation of an Agriculture Minister and the suicide of a company president.


TV program aired on September 12th about tainted rice scandal.

So the question is: how did this all happen, and what does it really mean? At Hakushi no Hitorigoto, the minimum import requirement imposed on Japan by the World Trade Organization is cited as a source of the problem of tainted rice:

なぜ、政府が、原産国でも食べない斯様な「事故米」まで、中国、米国、タイ、豪州、ベトナムから輸入するのか。嫌われたくないから輸入するのか。この仕組みに根本的な問題が在りはしないか。これを機に見直しが不可避ではないか。ここで「食用」と偽っての転売が報じられている「事故米」は、ウルグアイラウンド合意で、日本が外国からの購入を義務づけられた「輸入米」(年間計77万トンを上記の国々から購入)の一部(年間計2000トン)だ。

Why does our government import from China, America, Thailand, Australia and Vietnam, going as far as to import things like “jiko rice” [tainted rice/事故米] that would not even be eaten in the country where it is produced? Is it because they don't want to be disliked that they import these things? Isn't there a fundamental problem in this arrangement? Is it not inevitable that this [arrangmenent] be reconsidered? This “jiko rice” that is reported to have been resold as “edible food” is actually one part (2000 tonnes per year) of the “imported rice” (770,000 tonnes per year imported from the countries mentioned above) that Japan was obliged to import from abroad in the Uraguay Round Agreement.

Others questioned the strategy taken in dealing with the scandal. At What a Wonderful World, blogger ozaso_2001 condemns a lack of responsibility in authorities responding so slowly to the discovery of tainted rice:

後々影響を受けていることが判って被害者面をするよりも、少しでも早く回収するなり安全宣言するなりした方が、結局ダメージを小さく抑えることが出来ると思いますよ。対応が遅れると信用を失うことになり、損害がお金だけでは済まなくなる可能性もあります。

Instead of realizing the effects later and acting like victims, I think in the end the damage could be controlled somewhat if they recalled the rice a bit earlier, or issued a declaration vouching for its safety. If response is late, then there may be a loss of trust and there is the potential that more than just money may be lost.

Others wondered about the nature of the toxicity in the tainted rice. While the media focused on the high level of methamidophos, an organophosphorous insecticide, blogger ohira-y argued that aflatoxin B1, a carcinogenic fungus also found in the tainted rice, is actually much more dangerous:

アフラトキシンB1は、カビ毒の一種であり主にナッツや飼料から検出されます。また、日本での規制値は全ての食品に対し10μg/kgです。また、耐容摂取量は設定されていません。厳密には異なるものですが、メタミドホスの一日摂取許容量は 0.004 mg/kg体重/日 でした。耐容摂取量が設定されていないということは、つまり摂取する量はこのぐらい間ではいいよという量を設定できない(少なければ少ないほどよい)ということです。

Aflatoxin B1 is one of the main types of mycotoxin and is detected predominantly in nuts and animal feed. Also, the regulation value in Japan [of aflatoxin B1] for all food commodities is 10 μg/kg. In addition, there has been no tolerable intake level established [for this toxin]. Although strictly-speaking it is something different, the tolerable intake level for methamidophos was set at 0.004 mg/kg of body weight per day. The fact that the tolerable intake level is not set [for aflatoxin B1] means that in fact it is not possible to specify a level at which intake of this toxin is not dangerous (i.e. the less of it the better).

One of the most widely-read [ja] blog entries on the tainted rice incident, however, focused not so much on the rice itself, but on the media's reporting of the scandal. Just as many bloggers in China recently took their media to task over lack of coverage of the poisonous milk power scandal (which has recently hit Japan as well), blogger Chikirin questioned the Japanese media for skipping obvious details in the tainted rice scandal. In a blog entry entitled “Isn't this strange? Reporting on the ‘jiko rice'”, Chikirin highlights three points in particular:

1)“基準の2〜6倍のメタミドホス”の意味

1) Significance of “2 to 6 times the standard level of methamidophos”

こういう報道が多いでしょ。これって“現在の日本の規制基準値の○倍”という意味だと思うのだが、日本は米に関しては特に基準値が厳しいのではないか、という気がするよね。

Seems that there are many reports like this. I guess this means, “X times the current regulation standard in Japan”, but I have the feeling that standards in Japan are particularly strict with respect to rice.

そうだとしても、理由はもちろん食の安全のためだ!ということなのだろうが、実はこういった農薬基準をすんごく厳しくすることは「海外からの輸入を抑制するために非常に有効な方法」のはず。非関税障壁としても意味がある。

I guess people would respond that even if that is so, [these standards] are to keep our food safe! But in fact, having this kind of extremely strict regulations on agricultural chemicals is an extremely effective way to control foreign imports. It's also significant as a non-tariff barrier.

なので、「日本の基準の2倍から6倍の農薬残留量」というのが、「世界の他の国では特になんの問題もない量」なのか、「世界でも大問題の残留量」なのか、というのがまず知りたい。

So what I want to know is, does this “2 to 6 times the Japanese standard for pesticide residue” mean “an amount that is not particularly a problem in other countries of the world”, or “an amount of pesticide residue that would be a huge problem anywhere in the world”?

Chikirin goes on:

その上、「実は日本は米の残留農薬の基準値は世界で一番厳しいが、他の食品についての基準値はすんごくゆるいのだ」となってくれば「なんで米だけそんなに厳しい基準にするんだ?」という話になり、農水省が本当は何をしたいか、よくわかったりもする。

If it turns out that “in fact, Japan's criterion value for pesticide residue on rice is the strictest in the world, but the criterion value for other food items is extremely loose”, then the response would be, “why is the criteria so strict only for rice?” And at that point it becomes very easy to understand what the Ministry of Agriculture is really trying to do.

The next point Chikirin raises regards the amount of tainted rice as a percentage of all rice consumed domestically:

2)普通の米の事故米比率はどの程度なのか?

2) Among ordinary rice, what was the percentage of the tainted rice?

[...]

三笠フーズは事故米を年間2000トンくらい買い集めていたらしい。だとしても80万トンに占める割合は0.25%。これが事故米の全体かどうか、も知りたいし、日本で生産する米の事故米率も知りたいし、他の農産物(野菜)の事故率(基準値以上の農薬残留率)も知りたい。

Mikasa Foods was buying up around 2000 tonnes of tainted rice per year. If that is so, then this only makes up 0.25% of the total 80,000 tonnes. What I want to know is: is this all of the tainted rice, and what is the ratio of tainted rice to the total amount of rice produced in Japan, and what is the rate of tainted [goods] (ratio of pesticides according to the standard criterion) in the case of other agricultural products (vegetables)?

現在この事件により「海外からの輸入米は危ない!」という印象が非常に強く日本人に植え付けられつつある。これは日本の農家の利益を守りたい農水省にとってはとてもラッキーなことだと思う。心より“超うれし〜”と思っているだろう。

As a result of this accident, many Japanese people are being instilled with the extremely strong impression that “imported rice is dangerous!” Seems to me that this is a very lucky turn of events for a Ministry of Agriculture that wants to protect Japanese agricultural profits. They must be thinking to themselves from the bottom of their hearts: “We are so happy〜”

でも、いったいその事故比率が他の米、他の農産物と比べて高いのか、同じなのか、低いのか。それがわからないと「本当に危ないのは何なのか?」わからないじゃん。それとも「事故率」もしくは「不良品率」ってゼロだという前提なのか??そんな商品は工業商品でさえありえない。ましてや自然商品で不良品率ゼロなんてありえない。

However, is this ratio of tainted rice higher than the rate for other produce? Is it the same? Or is it lower? If you don't know this, then there's no way you can answer the question, “what is it that is really dangerous?” Or is it a premise that the “tainted ratio”, or “defective product ratio” is actually zero?? Producing this standard of goods is not even possible in the manufacturing industry, let alone in the natural products [industry].

The third point Chikirin raises is about how so-called “minimum access rice” is handled in Japan:

3)そもそもミニマムアクセス米の扱いはどーなっていたのか?

3)From the start, what has been going on with the handling of minimum access rice?

[...]

今回の事故米は「農薬残留量が過大、もしくは、カビなどが生えたもの」と報道されているが、もしも輸入した米を売りさばかずにずうっと倉庫においていたらどーなると思います?

The tainted rice in this incident has been described in reports as having “an excessively high level of pesticides, [and of having] mold growing on it”. What do you think happens when, instead of selling it, you put imported rice into storage for a really long time?

[...]

そりゃそーです。食べ物なんだから、一定期間以上放置していれば腐るなりカビが生えるなりする。食べ物を倉庫に何年も放置しとけば問題が起こるのはごく当然なのだから、むしろ「なんでそんなことしてんねん?」ってことのほうが知りたいちきりんです。ミニマムアクセス米はそもそもどういう扱いをされていたのか。これがまずは報道されるべきでない?

That's what happens. This is food, if you leave it for longer than a set period of time, it starts to go bad and grow mold. It's completely natural that if you put food into storage for years problems will arise, so my question is rather: “Why are you doing this kind of thing?” From the start, how is minimum access rice being handled? Shouldn't this first be reported on?

こんなむちゃくちゃな関税をかけて輸入を阻止しているので、「日本は自分が得意なものは輸出しまくるくせに、自分の弱い産業は完全保護なんてずるいだろ?」ということで最低限度の輸入を義務付けられている。それを「日本人に食べさせて味がばれるとまずいから」食べさせないと決めた。そもそも人に食べさせる気がないから、輸入時に農薬でべたべたのお米でも返品もクレーム付けもしない。(輸出国側も“どうせ日本は食べる気ないんだから”って感じだろう。)その上、食べないと決めているから当然余る。で、倉庫に放り込んでおく。そしたらカビが生えました、と。

Because Japan is imposing these kinds of unreasonable tariffs and blocking imports, [people in other countries think: "isn't it dishonest that Japan is exporting like crazy the things that it is good at producing, while completely protecting the industries where it is weak?", and it is for this reason that Japan is obliged to have a lower limit on imports. It was decided that "if Japanese were allowed to eat this [imported rice] and the taste was recognized, it would be bad news”, so people are not allowed to eat it. From the start, they don't want to allow people to eat [this rice], so even if it is sprinkled with pesticides when it is imported, nobody demands returns and no claims arise. (I guess from the side of the exporting country as well, they must figure that “whatever we do, Japan doesn't like to eat this, so…”) And on top of this, since it is certain that nobody will eat [this rice], surplus naturally starts to pile up. So it's thrown into the storehouse. And then mold starts to grow on it.

日本の農業の産業規模は1兆数千億円くらいです。そしてこの産業に投入されている補助金(税金)の総額が、ほぼ同等の1兆数千億円。産業規模と同じ規模の税金が投入されているということは、農業ってのは「半分、国有産業」なんです。言い換えれば私たち国民が税金で運営している産業、なんです。

Japanese agricultural production is on the order of 1 trillion several hundred billion yen [on the order of 10 billion USD]. The total sum of cash subsidies (from tax money) that is invested in this industry is roughly the same, on the order of 1 trillion yen. The fact that a quantity of tax money of roughly the same scale as the industry itself is being invested means that agriculture is a “half nationalized industry”. Which is to say that this is an industry which we citizens are running with taxpayer money.

だったら「ミニマムアクセス米をどう活用するのか」とかも含め、もっと全体感をもった議論を納税者はするべきではないのか?その判断のために必要な情報を農水省が隠蔽するのは当然としても、それを探り出して白日の下にさらすのは誰の役割なのだ?

If that's the case, then shouldn't taxpayers be making arguments that capture a more complete range of feelings, including the issue of “how to make use of minimum access rice”? Even if it is natural for the Ministry of Agriculture in making this judgment to conceal essential information, whose role is it to dig this up and expose it to the light of day?

議論すべきは末端の役人の焼き鳥屋での接待問題ではないと思う。農水省が三笠フーズを訴えるなんて茶番以外の何ものでもない。もしかして農水省は正義の味方のつもり?

I don't think bureaucrats having business dinners at yakitori-ya is what should be discussed here. The Ministry of Agriculture going after Mikasa Foods is an all-out farce. What, is the Ministry of Agriculture trying to be some kind of crime avenger?

[...]

これまで一生懸命やってきた焼酎メーカーが、だまされて事故米を買ったという罪で(毎日米3合分飲んでも)健康にはなんの問題もない商品を回収に追い込まれ、当然その損失は誰も補填してくれず、加えてNHKの報道をみた大手企業から今後の納入契約を破棄される。そして・・

Shochu makers who have been putting all their effort into their work are driven to recall goods which pose no health problems (even if you drink 3 of it every day) for the crime of having been tricked into buying jiko rice. And of course nobody will compensate them for the losses from this, not to mention the fact that large corporations will revoke their supply contracts after seeing the NHK broadcast.

今、公共の電波がやっていることはそういうことなのだ。私たちは本当にそれを望んでいる?

This is the kind of thing that our public airwaves are doing right now. Is this really what we want?

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