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Published December 09, 2013, 10:02 AM

Japan food scandals cloud export hopes

Shoppers browsing in supermarkets around the world would once have been reassured by a “Made in Japan” tag.

By: James Topham and Naveen Thukral, Reuters

TOKYO/SINGAPORE — Shoppers browsing in supermarkets around the world would once have been reassured by a “Made in Japan” tag.

But a wave of problems such as a recent mislabeling controversy and festering worries over nuclear contamination have tainted the nation’s reputation as a food safe-haven.

The growing list of food scandals could dent Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push to boost exports of high-end products such as Kobe beef, organic sake and even gimmicky square watermelons. That drive is part of efforts to double agricultural, marine and forestry shipments by 2020 and shake the economy out of stagnation.

“The government’s focus is on promoting industry, improving trade and helping the economy get better,” says Yasuaki Yamaura, an official at the Consumers Union of Japan. “Keeping food safe and dealing with the needs of consumers comprises very little of what they do.”

From radiation-tainted beef entering the supply chain after the Fukushima disaster in 2011 to tardiness in developing a test for feed additives in meat imports, question marks have sprung up over the way Japan deals with food for both local consumption and for export.

This autumn, several major hotels and restaurants in department stores admitted using inferior ingredients to those listed in menus — some for 17 years. Cheaper whiteleg shrimp was sold as premium Japanese Shiba shrimp, imported beef was touted as high-end wagyu and orange juice from cartons was described as freshly squeezed.

“These incidents have surfaced one after the other, and this inappropriate labelling has resulted in a loss of trust among consumers,” says top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga.

Consumer groups and experts blame lack of funding and bureaucracy for weak oversight.

“In the Food Safety Commission and the Consumer Affairs Agency budgets and staff are extremely small,” Yamaura says.

Spokesmen for both the Food Safety Commission and Consumer Affairs Agency say their respective office staffing levels of 110 and 300 are sufficient. Extra funds to boost annual budgets of 1 billion yen ($9.8 million) and 9.25 billion yen would be welcome, they say. The agencies were created in the last 10 years to supplement food safety efforts at the agricultural and health ministries, where the bulk of the work is done.

Intangible cultural asset?

While food scandals have been rife around the world this year — notably, with horse meat being passed off as beef in Europe — few nations have historically tried to make such a virtue of their food’s purity as Japan.

Indeed, in what some critics say is an attempt to deflect attention away from the food scandals, Japan is pushing to have its traditional cuisine placed on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Assets list.

But it is likely to take more than that to restore the nation’s battered reputation, with several countries curbing purchases following Fukushima.

Japan’s fish exports fell by about a quarter in 2011 and a similar amount in 2012 from 2010 levels, according to Ministry of Finance data.

And sales of fishery products at distribution companies in neighboring South Korea have dropped sharply since the operator of the stricken atomic plant admitted in July that radiation-contaminated water continued to leak into the ocean.

There is no longer fishing in the waters near the facility, but three out of four Koreans surveyed recently say they had reduced all seafood consumption.

“I feel more reluctant to buy Japanese food than before,” Lee Ji-hwan, a 27-year-old teacher, says. “I’m still hesitant to drink Japanese beer. Unless it’s something I really need or something that has no alternatives, I won’t buy it.”

Overall food and farm exports fell 13 percent in 2011 from 2010 and were down 16 percent in 2012 from pre-Fukushima levels, according to government numbers. Although levels are expected to pick up this year, and could even be close to 2010’s figures, Abe’s export goals are still a long way off.

Japan wants to boost shipments of agricultural, marine and forestry products to 1 trillion yen by 2020 from just less than 450 billion yen in 2012. Nearly three-quarters of shipments head to Asia — mainly greater China and South Korea.

Cookies, cakes

Domestic confidence in food safety has also been hit by worries over how the world’s No. 3 importer of agricultural products tests purchases it makes from the global markets it relies on for staples such as corn and wheat.

Japan, along with other countries, in June, banned imports of the U.S. wheat it uses to make cookies and cakes after unapproved genetically modified grains were found growing in Oregon. While South Korea quickly developed a test for GMO wheat, Japan lagged in coming up with a kit.

In October, Seoul detected cattle feed additive zilpaterol — banned in many countries — in U.S. beef. Taiwan made a similar finding while Tokyo officials say they were still trying to develop tests for the drug.

An official at Japan’s health ministry says it took a while to eventually complete a test as it had to be developed from scratch with a nondiluted sample of the drug not available in Japan.

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