No nation today can feed its population entirely on its own: All depend, to a greater or lesser extent, on imports of food. In an increasingly globalized world, issues of food safety have wide-ranging public health, political, and economic implications and consequences.
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To shed light on the complex topic of food safety and to explore related issues and solutions, the Tokyo Foundation, the Public Advice International Foundation, and the United Nations University co-sponsored an international conference under the title "Food Safety: International Trade, Sustainable Production, Social Responsibility."
Over 200 participants from such fields as international relations, science, industry, distribution, trade, retailing, and consumer interest, along with some 20 journalists participated in an in-depth dialogue on food safety on March 1, 2008, at the UN House in Tokyo. Held just weeks after news of contaminated dumplings imported from China hit the front pages of Japanese newspapers, the conference featured discussions among Japanese, EU, US, and Chinese experts on food safety and ways to prevent, mitigate the impact of, and remain more vigilant to similar incidents in the future.
The experts deepened their recognition of the threats to global food safety and sought concrete action toward the establishment of international food safety standards.
The panelists presented reports on the latest developments regarding food safety, such as the changing pattern of international food distribution; regulatory trends; food safety standards among manufacturers in China, the EU, and Japan; agriculture in Japan; and the results of consumer surveys. These reports indicated that given the increasingly globalized nature of food production and distribution, a sustained and stable food supply cannot be maintained without cooperative ties among various nations.
Panelists emphasized that in such a context, food safety is no longer the responsibility solely of the producers and manufacturers but that all players, including consumers and retailers, must have an active interest in and be aware of their responsibilities. A detailed report on food safety and quality control among Chinese food manufacturers by Qin Zhenkui, president of the Chinese Academy of Inspection and Quarantine, pointed to a large gap between reality and the images portrayed by the Japanese media and embraced by Japanese consumers.
One key conclusion worded by former Norwegian Minister of Health Werner Christie seemed to draw unanimous support: "Not the entire country but individual perpetrators should be punished for manufacturing and distributing contaminated food products and ingredients. Obviously this requires changes and improvements in the current food manufacturing, distribution, and trade system." Without such changes, consumer confidence cannot be repaired and spontaneous buyers' boycotts halted.
The main points made by the panelists are as follows, as summarized in a report by Rio D. Praaning Prawira Adiningrat, secretary general of the Public Advice International Foundation.
Food Safety: Japanese Government Action
Hidehisa Otsuji, former health minister and chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party's House of Councillors members, presented measures by the Japanese government to protect consumer's health, particularly more vigilance and more inspections at the borders. He recognized vulnerabilities in Japan's food culture, pointing to dependence of up to 60% on imported food and food ingredients. While China had the largest share in contaminated food shipments blocked at Japan's borders, in relative terms it was in fact US food that appeared to be most regularly unsafe. Otsuji's words on trust created the basis for the conference's key emerging understanding: Consumer trust can only be won through practical steps that ensure safety and quality, implying, as one food distributor indicated, that safety should not be sacrificed for a little more profit.
Industry's Position on Food Safety
Most seem to agree with Ajinomoto's Takeshi Kimura and DSM's Martijn Adorf that food from China can be safe but only if existing and emerging laws and regulations lead to truly sustainable production methods and adequate safety checks throughout the manufacturing and distribution process. Even if all required specifications for food products are met, cheap production methods may still lead to contamination. Adequate food manufacturing and distribution processes require investment. Responsible industries are willing to invest for the sake of upholding brand image, but are consumers ready to pay? A public opinion poll presented by Misako Yasui of the Tokyo Foundation appears to indicate that they are.
Food Safety: China and the World
"China cannot do without the world and the world cannot do without China," noted Werner Christie. In reply, Qin Zhenkui provided an overview of efforts by the Chinese government to radically improve the conditions for food manufacturing. British rapporteur Roger Skinner, who helped author the SFDA/ADB/WHO report on food safety in China, advised how close to 10 different ministries and "structures" in China and series of separate and overlapping laws and regulations could be reorganized in a more effective manner. Qin referred to the Eleventh National Food Safety Five-Year Plan specifying that 12 advanced tasks were already well underway. Today, he said, 107,000 Chinese food production companies have or are reaching the same standards as their Western counterparts. Such efforts, though, were focused on the food export sector. More fundamental issues regarding polluted water, air, and soil and such issues as the control of pesticides and chemicals remained to be addressed.
Food Safety and the Environment
Wakako Hironaka, former Japanese environment minister and Democratic Party of Japan member of the House of Councillors quoted Chinese Vice-Premier Wu Yi: "The cleaning up of Chinese water, air, and soil is a condition for healthy food and food ingredients." Indeed, China has rapidly become the world's factory. But this has caused imbalances that require redressing. Farmers in Japan and in China are losing out. Japanese farmers, such as those growing organic food, struggle to compete with low-cost, low-quality imports. Chinese farmers can hardly survive on their low income, creating vulnerabilities in such areas as pesticides and fertilizer control, storage, co-mingling, transport, and distribution.
Food Safety and Asymmetrical International Trade
Obijiofor Aginam, director of studies at Tokyo's UN University, spoke on "Food Safety and Asymmetrical Relations in the Contemporary Global Interdependence of Nations and Peoples." He pointed to increasing asymmetries both in North-South and in South-South trade relations. While the Doha Round focuses on Western access to Southern markets, issues between powerful and vulnerable Southern nations tend to be obscured but are equally relevant. They are the result of shifting balances in economic, manufacturing, purchasing, and trading power. He argued that nations should not engage in "disguised" trade restrictions, although nations should be allowed to adopt or enforce measures required to protect human, animal, or plant life or health. To resolve the more negative consequences of globalization he stated, "Trade norms must link with and mutually reinforce other norms that advance human dignity."
Qin pointed to the problems of developing an immense nation with many internal differences and changing requirements demanded of it by its trading partners. New rules on the use of pesticides and antibiotics are not easy to implement, he said, especially for poorer farmers, and lack of traceability and transparency over the food chain makes identification of contamination sources difficult. He emphasized that Chinese food manufacturers essentially produce in ways commensurate to their buyer's demands.
Toyoshige Ido of the Japanese trading company Micreed referred to continuous demands by Japanese companies to Chinese producers to focus on quantity and price rather than on quality, training, and education. Hironaka argued that international cooperation in these areas and joint inspection and certification would improve the food production and trade situation. She also called for common international standards on food safety and quality with stronger enforcement measures to provide better guarantees to consumers.
Food Safety, Sustainability and Social Responsibility
Dutch agriculture expert Carla Boonstra reported on the EU's comprehensive approach to food safety legislation. Echoing Aginam's statements, she indicated that EU member states anticipated ever-stronger measures to guarantee sustainability and social responsibility in the production of food. Earning the trust of consumers, she said, required the sharing of responsibility among government, industry, and NGO's; trust among governments; transparency; a basic willingness of consumers to pay for safe products; and partnerships between developed and developing countries leading to the sharing of know-how. "Transparency is an essential factor in the food dialogue," she said.
Food Production in Japan
Folk researcher Tomio Yuki addressed the current imbalance in food safety and trade issues through a personal angle: A 103-year-old woman in Okinawa recently told him, "Food is the medicine for life." This truth seems forgotten in today's hectic society. Quite apart from questions on the quality of foreign processed food, Yuki feared that food production in Japan would come to a halt altogether. The number of farmers and fishermen are alarmingly in decline, leaving an already food-dependent Japan with few choices. "In twenty years there will be no fishermen left," he said. This seemed to further open a strategic vulnerability in Japan that goes beyond the concern for safe food.
Masae Wada of the Japanese Housewives Association pleaded for faster disclosures of information on any contamination; stronger border inspections; better checks of processed food; more attention and support for the production of indigenous natural food; and more information on labels leading to better choice for consumers.
The Tokyo Foundation will continue to address the issue of food safety on an ongoing basis. A multifaceted approach will be adopted, as food is an issue that is deeply related to politics, economics, foreign policy, and many other aspects of national life.
See PA International Foundation's website for presentation materials: