Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Food Quarantine System Overloaded – Japan

Food Quarantine System Overloaded – Japan
(Daily Yomiuri Online - Koji Takishita et al.)

Only 10% of imports tested due to staffing shortages, technical difficulties

[Japanese] Consumers' concerns over the safety of food produced in China have once again been fueled by the latest food-poisoning case involving frozen gyoza imported from that country.

But the incident has also exposed the physical and technical limits of quarantine inspections of imported foods and, as experts have pointed out, drawbacks in importers' safety control systems.

An official of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry's Yokohama Quarantine Station, one of the largest quarantine facilities in the country, pointed out one of the problems of inspecting processed foods.

"It's difficult in the first place, and manpower is limited," the official said. "If we're required to inspect more items, it'll become difficult to examine vegetables and other perishables in the way we're doing now."

According to the ministry, quarantine officials check for the existence of intestinal bacteria and additives in processed foods, but not agrochemical residues. But they focus most of their attention on perishables, such as vegetables, meat and marine products, which they rigorously check for any violations against standards set for individual items based on a "positive list."

The current quarantine system was introduced in 2006 and prohibits the distribution of foods that contain agricultural and veterinary chemicals above a certain level.

As for the major reasons why no such tests are conducted on processed foods, the ministry said:
-- Because the amount of individual ingredients in processed foods is so small, there is little chance of detecting chemical residues.
-- Combinations of a multitude of ingredients complicate inspection procedures.
-- As ingredients are washed and heated when being processed, the amount of any chemical residues remaining in the food should be low.

There also is the question of the volumes involved.

To import foods from other countries, importers are required to submit to one of the nation's 31 quarantine stations and branches documents detailing information about the products, such as lists of ingredients, production methods and additives.

After this paper screening, only some imported products are actually tested for hazardous substances due to limited manpower, according to the ministry. The ministry said less than 10 percent of imported food was tested.

Of more than 1.84 million shipments reported to quarantine stations in fiscal 2006, only 203,000, or about 11 percent, were actually tested. This figure includes tests of products imported by firms that have made violations in the past.

The number of quarantine officials is increasing each year, with the current figure standing at about 330.

Nevertheless, even if the quarantine system is upgraded in the future, the ministry is hesitant about testing for agrochemical residues in processed foods. A senior official of the ministry's Food Safety Department said it would be more practical to enhance measures taken by importers to check safety. …

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