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Rebuilding Trust in Beef

by Jeff Worley

When the first case of mad cow disease hit Japan in the fall of 2001, it set off a chain reaction of concern at every level of government in the country. Food safety became public issue #1 in Japan. And when, 18 months later, the United States announced its first case of mad cow disease, which had been found in the state of Washington, the Japanese government reacted swiftly and strongly, imposing a ban on U.S. beef imports.

Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is a brain-wasting illness that has been linked to the fatal Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans, which has killed around 100 people in Britain since it broke out in the mid 1980s. Humans can catch it by eating infected meat.

Photo of Keiko Tanaka“In the last two decades, a series of food scares and crises—BSE, E. coli, avian influenza, foot-and-mouth disease—has provoked national and international authorities to reform institutions and procedures to ensure food safety,” says Keiko Tanaka, an assistant professor in UK’s Department of Community and Leadership Development. “Government agencies in several countries have been dealing with such questions such as, What constitutes safe food? How should the safety of a food product be defined? How should farming and food processing practices be changed to ensure the safety of the food we eat?”

In these reform efforts, the role of science in food production and distribution has become paramount, adds Tanaka, a Japanese citizen. Science-based food safety, an initiative announced by President Clinton in 1997, is focused on developing prevention strategies to keep pathogens out of the food we eat, throughout the food chain from farm to table. The initiative was envisioned as a way to define food safety apart from any political considerations. In the past nine years this approach has been adopted not only by the United States, but by other countries as well.

Tanaka, also a faculty member in UK’s Department of Sociology, was interested in examining Japan’s new “food-safety regime,” as she calls it, which began in June 2003. Her role, she explains, was not to define food safety herself, but to try to understand the process through which the term is defined by government and citizens. Her primary research partner in this work is Keith Schillo, an associate professor of animal and food sciences at UK.

In the fall of 2004, Tanaka and graduate research assistant Kiyohiko Sakamoto went to Japan to see how its new Food Safety Commission was analyzing the risk of BSE. This involved the very unglamorous work of reading the transcript minutes of every meeting held by a subcommittee that does the actual analysis. “The word ‘tedious’ doesn’t even begin to cover it,” groans Tanaka, an amiable and very animated woman who also talked with over a dozen interest groups in the beef and restaurant industries to see how they were responding to the BSE risk.

“Another approach I took was to see how the risk of BSE is being communicated to the public through various government forums and public meetings, and how the public was responding to the information given to them.” With this raw data, Tanaka will then see to what extent these various concerns have become incorporated into public policy—or not.

Through her analysis of the subcommittee discussions, interviews with concerned public groups and with citizens, Tanaka was able to recognize the most important issues surrounding food safety. “The most significant concern expressed by nearly every participant in the discourse on food safety is the rise of Japan’s dependence on food imports. And although the United States was exerting great pressure on the Japanese government to lift its ban on U.S.-imported beef, the Japanese people overwhelmingly wanted the ban to stay.”

At issue specifically was the U.S. policy of testing only a small percentage of cattle for mad cow disease. After the infected cow was found in Japan in 2001, Japan began testing all cattle for BSE, the only country in the world to do so. The United States at this time was testing only a tiny fracture of the annual slaughter—about 40,000 out of some 36 million head, according to an article published in The New York Times. And the U.S. Agriculture Department said this percentage of testing would not likely change.

In February 2004, Peter Fernandez, of the department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, told a news conference at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo that there is no logical justification for testing all cattle upon slaughter to see if they are infected with the disease. A few days later Japan’s Kyodo News did a telephone survey to see how this announcement went over with Japanese consumers. Not well. The survey found that 87 percent believed Japan should not lift the ban without full testing of U.S. cattle.

“What interested us as researchers of food-safety issues was how such a clear ‘vote’ by consumers would be translated—or not—into public policy,” says Tanaka.

Another chief concern that she and Sakamoto focused on was “trust.” “Rebuilding public trust in food safety was a justification used in 2001 to integrate the science-based risk analysis model into Japan’s food-safety governance. “Now you might think that science equates with clear, uncontroversial solutions, but that was far from the case,” says Tanaka. “What we found was that ambiguous, fluid, and often conflicting meanings of what constitutes ‘scientific’ begin to emerge.” In particular, diverse viewpoints were contested on the issues of what data should be included and relied on to scientifically assess BSE risk, how scientific assessment of BSE risk should be incorporated into the development of a recommendation for BSE preventive measures, and whom scientific knowledge about BSE risk should protect,” she explains.

The extent to which public opinion forms public policy—the effect of democratic input—is a further focus of Tanaka in this work. Japan’s Food Safety Commission never did impose the requirement that the United States do universal BSE testing. The commission decided that the requirement wasn’t necessary because BSE cannot be detected in cows less than 24 months old; therefore, testing wouldn’t reduce any risk of mad-cow disease.

“This decision clearly fails to reflect the will of consumers, as seen from the Kyodo telephone survey and our discussions with a wide range of people. This discrepancy needs to be further investigated to understand to what degree public participation is actually integrated and compromised in the food-safety policy-making process.”  

After the project ends in July 2007, Tanaka and Schillo will share their findings through public presentations and scholarly articles. “The findings from this project will help us add to the rapidly growing literature focused on science-based food-safety control,” Tanaka says. “Right now, the literature on Japanese food-safety governance is nearly nonexistent in English.”