Mount Fuji

The food we choose to eat
Japan's 'food paranoia' keeps high-quality produce off the menu

The food we choose is based on our preferences, cultures and values. Human behavior has evolved over the years and people's choices have become increasingly complex, varying by period in life, by season, by day and by time. A person can purchase a mass-market snack on impulse at one moment, and a few hours later be pondering over the choice of a meal in an exclusive restaurant. Although the product and the decision-making that leads to the consumption may be quite different, the underlying principles remain largely the same. Generally speaking, people have become increasingly demanding in terms of taste, quality, health impact, safety and value.

On a more prosaic level, the food we choose is also based on availability. In this respect, the availability of European food in Japan is considerably less than what it should be. There are many reasons for this and it is the role of the EBC (European Business Council in Japan) to identify the issues involved and help overcome them so that more people living in Japan can access a broader selection of high-quality European foods.

The main issue concerning the EBC regarding food include additives, food safety, beef, organic products and import duty rates. In December 2002, the Japanese government identified 46 priority food additives for approval based on their wide use in Europe and the U.S., as well as their safety according to official internationally recognized bodies. However, more than four years later, only seven out of these 46 additives have been approved. Consequently, many top-quality and perfectly safe European foods are not available in Japan. At the same time, many Japanese foods contain different additives that are not approved in Europe.

The European Union can be proud of its standards of safety and has put in place a comprehensive program "from the farm to the fork" to reassure consumers about the safety of their food. Due to successive food scandals in Japan over recent years, including some very high-profile ones, Japan has achieved the unenviable status of "food paranoia," where common sense has given way to panicky and wasteful knee-jerk reactions. This can, and often does, mean that minor aberrations, with absolutely no associated health or safety risks, result in expensive public apologies and product recalls. Perfectly good food is unnecessarily disposed of and the supplier is left with a huge bill to pay. An increasing number of food suppliers, not only foreign but also Japanese, are highly concerned with this situation, with some now describing their food market as a "high-risk, low-return market."

The EBC urges the government of Japan to establish new guidelines to better manage food in the marketplace. A more meaningful and effective approach is required in this day when environmental issues are also of such great concern to all of us. One idea is that for any infringement discovered, regardless of the source, discussions should take place first between the supplier and the local health authority. Such discussions should be based on a global approach, including an evaluation of health, safety, environmental and other relevant aspects. Where clearly no health or safety risk is involved, an official safety certificate from the local health authority stating this could be used to prevent wasteful, unnecessary recalls.

Regarding beef, the EBC is disappointed that although U.S. beef imports have been allowed to be resumed, European beef, with arguably some of the best safety records and traceability systems in the world, remains a subject to be discussed at some point in the future.

Organic food is another area of interest for the EBC. Japan has one of the smallest organic food markets in the world, particularly when measured on a per capita basis. This seems to be directly linked to a lack of availability and awareness. One major hindrance in this respect is an overly cumbersome and expensive organic certification process that results in many suppliers, importers, wholesalers and retailers opting out of, or delaying, the certification process or even opting out of the market altogether.

Import duties are perhaps one of the most visible and commonly cited issues between trading partners. Japan offers some special cases. For example, 25 percent for confectionery products and 21.3 percent for tomato ketchup seem excessive. Even chocolate, much loved by Japanese, suffers an unusual fate. Chocolate imported in retail packs has an acceptable import duty of 10 percent. On the other hand, the very same chocolate, if imported in larger packs to be used by Japanese professionals, is subject to a much higher import duty of 29.8 percent. This anomaly works against Japan's interests as it results in thousands of Japanese professionals, committed to using premium European chocolate in their recipes, being forced to pay much higher prices than necessary to produce their final creations.

Clearly, many challenges remain in expanding the availability of European food in Japan. The EBC will continue to collaborate with the EU Delegation in Japan and the government of Japan to achieve what it believes to be universally beneficial goals, including offering people in Japan a greater choice of high-quality European food.

Read more...

Editor's note: The author of this article Duco Delgorge is former vice chairman of the EBC (European Business Council) in Japan. He also chaired its Food Committee.