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POINT OF VIEW/Natsuko Kumasawa:Savvy consumers can better weigh food risks

It is important for consumers to acquire enough knowledge to make good, level-headed assessments of the risks various foods pose to their health without being misled by media reports.

In the past few years, Japan has been hit by a series of food scares and food-safety scandals, including the outbreaks of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and bird flu, revelations about large amounts of residual pesticides in vegetables imported from China and various food mislabeling scandals.

These problems are all part of the evils of today's efficiency-oriented system for mass-producing and mass-consuming foods as if they were industrial goods. These episodes have naturally made Japanese consumers quite uneasy about the safety of foods they consume.

But many consumers are surprisingly ignorant about food safety issues.

When BSE makes headlines, they stop eating beef. When bird flu makes a splash on front pages, they avoid buying chicken and eggs. Consumers' response to such news, however, is mostly temporary, and they quickly forget the problems.

Japanese consumers' concern is often directed only at matters reported in the media but not at real issues behind the news.

No case of bird flu infection in humans from eating chicken or eggs has been reported in the world.

Still, many people in Japan are currently feeling ill at ease about eating eggs or chicken.

What these people should know is that chickens are grown in very poor conditions in many of today's chicken farms, often in crowded, windowless poultry houses.

And some scientific studies have found that chickens that lay eggs under these stressful circumstances often have a disease in such organs as the larynx, the ovary, the liver and the air sac. It makes little sense to fret only about bird flu while turning a blind eye to this and other serious problems with chicken farming.

BSE also represents only an extremely small health risk for Japanese consumers, who don't eat such dangerous parts as the brain or the eye. Moreover, unlike Britain, which started a serious effort to prevent the spread of the disease to humans only after more than 160,000 cows had become infected, Japan took steps to contain the disease immediately after the first case was discovered.

Rather than worrying about BSE, Japanese consumers should be more concerned about the widespread use of synthetic hormones for growth promotion by American cattle growers as well as the abuse of antibiotics in the livestock industry, which is causing proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Many consumers simply don't know how to deal with risks. Every food represents a risk to health. There is no food that is 100 percent safe. And the same food carries different types and degrees of risk to different people.

An egg poses a serious health hazard for people allergic to eggs. Eating fish and shellfish which contain high levels of heavy metals carries risk for pregnant women because fetus is susceptible to heavy metals.

But there is no good reason for people not allergic to eggs to avoid eating them. Fish are generally important sources of nutrients.

It is important for consumers to acquire enough knowledge to make good, level-headed assessments of the risks various foods pose to their health without being misled by media reports.

Accurate information is essential for consumers to make cool-headed judgment about the health risks of food products.

Revelations about food mislabeling by some suppliers have only exacerbated consumer anxiety. Eels labeled as ``domestically produced'' could turn out to have been imported from China. When the label on a pack of rice announces it is 100 percent ``koshihikari'' from Niigata Prefecture, it may actually be blended rice.

With food mislabeling so rampant, it is by no means surprising that consumers feel nonplused. Food producers and processors should make a greater effort to provide consumers with accurate information about the manufacturing process and materials used for their products.

The government, for its part, should try to provide a more vigorous enforcement of food-related standards like the Japan Agricultural Standards (JAS). Laws and regulations need to be enforced through effective monitoring and compelling force. The system for checking compliance should be enhanced to ensure accurate and reliable food labeling.

Honest labeling is the first step toward adequate disclosure. And adequate disclosure, I believe, helps consumers develop the ability to make balanced and healthy judgments about food risks.

The author is an international program officer at the Japan Offspring Fund. She contributed this comment to The Asahi Shimbun.(IHT/Asahi: June 12,2004) (06/12)

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