- TOKYO (AFP) - Asia's first
case of mad cow disease confirmed in Japan on September 22 is turning into
a national crisis, with increasingly dissatisfied consumers and a
that takes hygiene measures almost every day without reassuring the
- "I have been avoiding beef for the past two weeks
because I am so scared. I want the government to make clear that beef is
proved to be safe," Masako Kanazawa, a 67-year old housewife, told
- Like millions of other Japanese, Kanazawa and her family
stopped eating beef when the government confirmed the brain wasting illness
was found in a dairy cow at a farm in Chiba, accross the Bay of
- According to a European food expert contacted by AFP,
the demand for locally produced and imported beef had since dropped 30
- "It's approaching a meat crisis in general because
the increase in sales of pork and poultry have not compensated for the
fall in beef," he said.
- Restaurants serving grilled steak (yaki nikku), a popular
delicacy, were deserted, even though they had put up notices assuring
that their beef was safe.
- "We started to see a decline last Saturday, about
50 percent fewer people every day. Younger people don't seem too bothered,
but the number of families and older people have fallen," said Sang
Jun An, 28, manager of a yaki nikku restaurant.
- Yet the public seems impervious to assurances by the
authorities that beef is safe to eat. Several ministers, including the
Agriculture and Forest minister, Tsutomu Takebe, have even publicly eaten
steak this week.
- The ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which has
strong ties to farming, has asked the media to stop showing TV images of
cows with trembling legs.
- But prices are still about 20% lower than usual after
the cost for medium quality meat touched a bottom of -47 percent on
25, the first day of sales after confirmation of the BSE case, according
to a Tokyo central meat market official.
- "We receive lots of e-mails of protests, some people
talk one hour on the phone. Most of them say they do not trust the
any more. It has lost its credibility. People do not believe what they
say," said Hiroko Mizuhara, secretary general of Consumers Union of
Japan, one of the biggest consumer groups in Japan.
- Her association, which is known for its campaign against
genetically modified organisms, had since March pressed to government to
introduce testing of all cows and to trace back in every farm the use of
imported bone meal from Britain, that stopped only in 1997.
- "The government has said (since September 27) that
it will stop using risky products (spinal chord, brain, eyes) in medicine,
cosmetics and food products (sauces, condiments, baby food) but it is a
guide line and not a real ban," she said.
- Mizuhara predicted that large food or cosmetic companies
would likely follow the guidelines but it would be the smaller companies
who could continue to use possibly-tainted ingredients.
- The government which had denied the possibility of the
disease spreading to the archipelago has been criticised for its handling
of the crisis.
- "To reassure people we are trying to provide correct
and truthful knowledge of the disease" a spokesman from the ministry
of health's food inspection and safety division said.
- "We have brochures and our website to tell people
consumption of beef is fairly safe and not dangerous if you avoid risky
parts... We also set the rule only to ship beef on the market that would
be tested negative," he said.
- The Agriculture minister Takebe had to make a public
apology last week for initially saying that the diseased carcass had been
burned before it was revealed it had been ground up into bonemeal.
- News reports said the bonemeal, which the government
has advised against using since 1996, had in fact been fed to cows in more
than 26 farms. It has now been banned outright.
- Another measure meant to restore confidence, to be
on October 18, will be the systematic testing of cows older than 30 months
- The test will concern one million of the 1.3 million
cows slaughtered each year.
- "The Japanese are on a good path to reducing the
risk; the systematic tests and the ban of bonemeal. But there are things
that still worry me," said the European expert, who said there would
likely be more cases of BSE here.
- He demanded to know how the government would train enough
slaughterhouse technicians, before October 18, to learn how to remove
organs, like the spinal chord.
- He also questioned whether they would be able to carry
out the European bought anti-BSE tests without having sent any mission
in Europe to receive detailed instructions from the manufacturers.
- "There are also differences between the ministries
of health and agriculture in how to submit the brain for tests, apparently
the ministry of agriculture does not follow the users manual and tests
brain parts where there are usually no prions (the infectious agents for
BSE)," he said.
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