EDITORIAL: Growing scandal over tainted rice
We wonder just how far the scandal over tainted rice will spread, following new shocking revelations about its usage. It turns out that tainted rice, which was intended for industrial glue and other products, was used for festive red rice, or rice with red beans, to be served as part of hot meals in hospitals, special nursing homes for the elderly, and nursery schools.
Thus, tainted rice was consumed not only in the form of shochu liquor or sake rice wine and confectionaries. Many people ended up eating rice that was unfit for human consumption. In some nursery schools and other facilities, the amount of pesticide detected in leftovers was above the legal limit.
The tainted rice was widely distributed to numerous manufacturers; apart from Mikasa Foods Co., the central entity in the scandal, two other companies had been using the imported rice for resale. The alcohol beverage makers and confectionary companies using the problem rice are now rushing to recall their products from shop shelves around the country.
It's a given in a business that sells food products that the merchandise is safe. But this basic principle seems to have been abandoned. What is the reason for this? Japan is hardly in a position to criticize any other country for its lack of food safety.
Yet, the response from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries suggests it does not grasp the gravity of the situation. The ministry is reluctant to disclose the names of the recipients of the tainted rice. As a rule, it does not release the names of companies that are unwilling to court such publicity. The ministry has also remained silent about the names of hospitals where patients and staff members ate tainted rice. The farm ministry asserts that food safety is the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, and that it does not have any power over the matter.
The farm ministry is probably concerned about the damage that disclosure will do to the businesses. But consumer anxiety will only grow if the public remains in the dark about how the tainted rice was distributed. Consumer anxiety will only result in damaging the industry even further.
Before anything else, the farm ministry is also to blame for having allowed the diversion of tainted rice at the outset. Most of the tainted rice was imported and sold by the ministry to private companies. They then sold rice that had become moldy during storage, or because the consignment contained too much pesticide. For the ministry, companies that would purchase such rice for "industrial" use were welcome customers.
The ministry could not see through the fabrications of those companies that sold the tainted rice. We cannot help but suspect this scandal was due in part to the fact that the ministry and the companies maintained overly cozy relations with each other.
Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda instructed farm minister Seiichi Ota to track down the distribution routes. However, we believe this matter should not be left solely in the hands of the farm ministry. The government must ensure that Seiko Noda, minister of consumer policy, becomes the focal point of all related information so as to establish full cooperation and collaboration with the health ministry as well as with local governments, and use all its resources to get to the root of the matter.
Just because the prime minister has abandoned his post, it does not mean that the government can just close up shop. Although no actual cases of health problems have been reported yet, the public's well-being is at stake. We urge the government to resolve the confusion as soon as possible, by hurrying to clarify the entire distribution route, and by putting together measures to prevent something like this from ever happening again.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 13(IHT/Asahi: September 15,2008)