Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Grains of Untruth

The latest false labeling food scandal involves a company selling rice intended for non-food, industrial applications as edible rice to a number of food producers. The rice, tainted with illegally high levels of pesticide, or irremediably water damaged, or containing toxins from mold, was purchased from the Japanese government.

The government had bought it from various sources including China and Vietnam, in a crafty use of loopholes enabling it to simultaneously fulfill its World Trade Organization accord "minimum access" obligations and continue to support/subsidize/protect domestic rice farmers.

Unfortunately for all of the executives and bureaucrats involved in this cozy setup, Mikasa Foods got greedy, and started selling the rice, after relabeling or rebagging it, and apparently sometimes mixing it, as edible rice to several manufacturers of shochu and other products, and to some trading houses, too. And they were found out.

Astonishingly, many Japanese don't seem to understand the situation and have jumped to the conclusion that this is another case of importing tainted food from China, such as flooded the media some months ago with the infamous gyoza case.

Most recently, after the government demanded that Mikasa retrieve the tainted rice they'd sold, it's being shown to be largely impossible; it's too late. They've purchased 1,779 tons of the tainted rice since 2003, Of that, about 809 tons of rice contained methamidophos, a pesticide, or aflatoxin, a toxin from mold. The company has sold 354 tons of such tainted rice to other firms for edible use and stored the rest, or so they say. They've managed so far to recover only four or five tons of what they sold. Most has already gone into beverages, rice crackers, and so on.

The agriculture ministry revealed Monday it found another pesticide—acetamiprid—in rice sold by Mikasa Foods to some of the five beverage makers who agreed to have their names released.

Media attention is currently focused on Mikasa's shady dealings--double sets of books and all--and on the efforts of manufacturers, who may have been sold and already used the tainted rice, to managed recalls or take other disaster recovery measures. Some attention is going to the lack of effective oversight on how the tainted rice is bought, stored, resold, and distributed.

Insufficient attention, in my opinion, is being given to how and why the Japanese government has for years now gone out of its way to buy specifically inedible rice as a cynical means of fulfilling the letter, but not the spirit, of its WTO accord responsibilities.

No comments: