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:


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:


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


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.


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.


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:


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



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)?


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〜”


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



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?



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?


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.


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.


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?


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?



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.


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


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