Keeping Tabs on the Food Chain

Back to Contents of Issue: July 2002

A slew of recent scandals have the Japanese tracing the origins of their groceries via the net.

by Mayumi Saito

JAPANESE CONSUMERS HAVE LEARNED a frightening lesson in the past nine months: If you think you know what you're eating, think again. The anxiety started with the outbreak of BSE, or mad cow disease, in Chiba Prefecture last September, scaring consumers away from domestic beef and towards the imported variety. In January, that friendly old company Snow Brand Foods was revealed to have mislabeled imported beef as domestic meat to obtain government subsidies. In March, Zenno (the National Federation of Agricultural Co-ops) Chicken Foods in Saitama Prefecture was caught red-handed labeling imported chicken meat as higher-priced domestic chicken. Later, Marubeni Chikusan was also found to have been passing off imported chicken from Brazil as domestically raised fowl.

Unsurprisingly, the scandals have seriously undermined consumer confidence in food labeling, prompting the government to act. The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry started its Food Label 100 Hotline on February 15 and by the end of April, 2,346 calls and faxes of complaints had poured in.

Although 30 percent of the inquiries were about meat, consumers' concerns extended to other fresh foods, processed foods, rice and even wheat. People demanded more public scrutiny, stiffer penalties for mislabeling food and tighter inspections before granting the Japanese Agricultural Standards (JAS) certification.

Currently, the Diet is pondering a bill submitted by the ruling parties to completely ban the use of meat and bone meal (the possible cause of BSE) in cattle feed to prevent further BSE outbreaks. It would also require producers to track data on the cattle feed, production sites and distribution channels, similar to the traceability system established in the EU in 1997. Farmers would be obliged to affix a tag on the ear of each cow to record its movements. The planned law is expected to take effect by the end of this fiscal year.

Public administrations and retail stores are now already taking steps to regain consumer trust. Gifu Prefecture's farm bureau and the Zenno Hiroshima office have each started a Web site to provide information on locally bred cows using their registered code numbers. Gifu's Cow Bell and Zenno's Cow Passport sites both give consumers access to information about local beef farmers. The sites give consumers the names and addresses of the farms as well as pictures of the farms and details about all the cows raised there. The Hokkaido government is also considering a similar system.

Meanwhile, many grocery chains provide equally copious information on their Web sites: the supermarket Tokyu Store has installed computer terminals in each of its five branches. The Dokodemo Navi (Anywhere Navigator) system developed by Yamatake displays detailed information on the store's vegetables. On the production belt, a computer measures and records the temperature and humidity at various points and stores it on each vegetable's ID tag. In the shop customers can use Dokodemo Navi to get to know the produce they're buying. They'll see a picture and profile of the farm as well as the departure and arrival times of the vegetables; even slight changes in temperature and humidity during the vegetable's distribution will be displayed.

"No customers actually check the vegetables one by one, yet providing this kind of information leads to confidence in our products," says Tokyu spokesman Koichi Matsumura. He claims that the most popular item on the system so far is for recipes using vegetables. Another supermarket, Maruetsu, also began a bar code fruit-and-veggie tracing system at its two branches in February. Aeon/Jusco is another vendor that provides information on organic vegetables and Kagoshima beef at the Yamato-Tsuruma branch's computer terminal.

All is not perfect: Furnishing and maintaining an in-store computer system is costly, while placing information on the Web fails to cater to customers' immediate needs. The farm ministry's Mitsuhiro Miyakoshi once suggested using consumers' cellphones to trace a cow's background, prompting mobile-service provider UID to develop a food-tracing system for cellphone addicts. Users can enter a number from the package into their cellphones and, a few seconds after sending it to UID, data on the food is automatically returned via email. The information can contain profiles of the livestock and the producing farm, feed history, distribution dates and points, the use of genetically modified (GM) plants, fertilizers and preservatives.

Among the 70 million-plus cellphone users in Japan, the email function is regarded as easy to use and is particularly popular with women in their 20 to 40s -- UID's target market. A natural question arises as to whether shoppers would really bother checking emails on their cellphones for each food item. According to the survey UID conducted on 300 housewives, 30 percent of them were eager to use the system and 25 percent said they might use it once. 45 percent of them said that they weren't interested in the system, wouldn't use the email service or didn't have a cellphone at all. UID president Katsutoshi Kitamura says, "Whether the consumers would actually use the system is not really the issue. As almost all food labels are losing credibility now, producers are obliged to provide as much information as possible." He believes that sincere endeavors on the part of producers will appeal to the consumers and constitute a valuable 'brand' in itself. Kitamura claims that the system is ready, but that providing all the data on the livestock and the farms under the same system management would take time for the farm ministry and Zenno. Nevertheless, he hopes to market it in June or soon after.

UID may not be entirely alone in its battle -- the farm ministry asked companies and associations involved in developing food traceability systems to apply for subsidies by the end of this April. With subsidies due to be in place by March 2003, the beneficiaries should be in perfect position to ride the crest of a very profitable wave -- and to reassure nervous shoppers across Japan. @

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