Mad Cow Scare Grips Japan

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 government that takes hygiene measures almost every day without reassuring the population.
"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 AFP.
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 Tokyo.
According to a European food expert contacted by AFP, the demand for locally produced and imported beef had since dropped 30 percent.
"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 customers 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 traditionally 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 September 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 government 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 implemented on October 18, will be the systematic testing of cows older than 30 months for BSE.
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 complicated 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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