Japan's farm minister resigns in rice scare
TOKYO (AFP) — Japan's farm minister resigned Friday in a spiralling scare over pesticide-laced rice, which was served to hospital patients and schoolchildren and led to thousands of recalls.
Seiichi Ota quit just days before he would be out of a job anyway due to the resignation of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, whose government's approval rating stands at rock-bottom.
"In consideration of the large social impact that the tainted rice has had, I have resolved to resign as farm minister," Ota said at a press conference.
The resignation "will show who is responsible," said Ota, declaring responsibility for failing to address the public's concerns.
The scandal emerged when Osaka-based company Mikasa Foods earlier this month admitted to selling imported pesticide-tainted rice to snack makers and ordering company employees to go ahead with the sales.
Public anxiety heightened as hundreds of food companies including major breweries were hit by the scandal and the rice was also distributed to hospitals and schools.
Ota, known for his outspoken remarks, had been under fire for comments suggesting that he was reluctant to handle the situation.
The reselling of the tainted rice "does not have any impact on health. That is why I am not really making a big deal out of it," he said when the scandal emerged, causing uproar among consumers and lawmakers.
Last month he said Japanese consumers were too "fussy" over food safety.
Ahead of Ota's resignation, the farm ministry's number two had also quit, assuming responsibility for mishandling the food scandal.
"The government is regretful and sorry that this issue has increased people's worries over food safety," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura, who will serve as acting farm minister for government's final days.
Machimura -- who has said he unknowingly drank liquor with the tainted rice -- promised that the government was "making its utmost efforts" to address the scare.
Senior opposition leader Yukio Hatoyama said that the resignation came too late.
"He should have quit sooner," Hatoyama told reporters. "And the one who appointed a person like him should be held responsible too."
The opposition is hopeful it can oust the Liberal Democratic Party, which has been in power for all but 10 months since 1955, in the next elections.
The Liberal Democrats meet on Monday to pick Fukuda's successor, with conservative stalwart Taro Aso seen as the front-runner. The next premier is expected to take office on Wednesday.
Japan imported the rice in the scandal from China, Vietnam and other countries under its international commitment to open its tightly protected agricultural market.
Authorities set aside rice that was contaminated but sold it to companies for industrial use, such as making glue. Mikasa Foods admitted it passed the rice off as edible to cash in on the huge price difference.
Farm minister is a coveted position in Japanese politics but holders of the post have been a bete noire for the prime minister.
Fukuda's predecessor Shinzo Abe went through four farm ministers including one who hanged himself as a probe loomed into dirty money allegations. Two other farm ministers under Abe left office over financial wrongdoing.