From Bio Journal - November 2011

Closeup: Towards unification of food labelling

Moves in the Consumer Affairs Agency

The possibility has arisen that there will be large changes in food labelling. (Please see BJ October 2011) The trigger for this has been the establishment of the Consumer Affairs Agency in 2009. Whereas up to now several ministries and agencies have had separate and independent jurisdiction over different aspects of food labelling, these are now all to be unified under the Consumer Affairs Agency.

Moves have accelerated since the beginning of this year. The Consumer Affairs Agency Basic Plan was finalised in March and a "Working Group on the Nature of a Unified Legal System for Food Labellingh was established in April. This WG was an einvestigative teamf consisting of bureaucrats. In July, the Consumer Affairs Agency Basic Plan was amended to read, gConcerning the nature of the legal system, including the unified legal system for food labelling, as well as interpreting and executing in an integrated manner the MAFF JAS Law, the MHLW Food Sanitation Law and Health Promotion Law, and the Consumer Affairs Agency Law for the Prevention of Unreasonable Premiums and Misrepresentation concerning Products and Services, and other related ordinances, problems inherent in these will be taken up and investigated while continuing to improve the execution of the current system.h

On this basis, a Food Labelling Unification Investigative Committee was set up inside the Consumer Affairs Agency and it was decided to go ahead with the formulation of a new law. The Committee is scheduled to meet ten times up to June 2012 to formulate a unified draft law for the labelling system. The new gFood Labelling Lawh is scheduled to be promulgated in 2012 and come into force in 2013. It looks like the Committee will have to do its work at a fast trot, and if progress continues as scheduled the main contents of the new law should be largely determined within this year.

What will happen to the consumersf right to know?

So the problem is the content of the law. Will it be something that is easily understood by consumers? Will it help consumers choose the foods they want to buy? The focus is especially on the following three issues:

The first is the labelling for country-of-origin of raw materials of processed foods. It is this issue of the labelling of country-of-origin of raw materials of processed foods that is the origin of the moves to amend food labelling in the first place. As the import of raw food materials has grown, so food safety has been threatened.

The second is the labelling of health food products. There has been a whole series of cases of labelling suggesting certain advantageous health effects despite the fact that the product has no effect at all.

The third, and this is the issue concerning which consumersf hopes are highest, is the labelling of genetically modified foods. At present, since almost all foods are exempt from compulsory labelling, there is no labelling even if the product is manufactured using GM crops as raw material. The result has been the reality that the Japanese are now consuming more GM foods than anyone else in the world. The outcome of the Committeefs work on the new law will be judged upon how well it treats these three labelling issues.

However, it is anticipated that food industry circles will put up a strong resistance to a revision of food labelling regulations. There is another source of resistance, and that is from the bureaucrats themselves. The Consumer Affairs Agency was established to uphold consumer sovereignty, but most of the officials who work there are on external assignment from either from MAFF or MHLW. There is a strong possibility that consumer sovereignty will be hijacked by bureaucrats who are close to industry circles.

GMO crop approvals for September 2011

GM crops approved for open field cultivation (Type 1 usage)
(Biodiversity Impact Assessment Investigative Commission)
NameApproval Date*
MaizeDrought toleranceMonsanto JapanMON87460, OECD UI: MON-87460-409 September 2011
* Technically, approval is granted after public comments have been accepted.

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