The Japanese federal government is adding an agency for food safety:
On 21 August, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries began a study to the possible end of establishing an “agency for food-product safety,” with centralized oversight of the safety of food products, as early as autumn 2011. The new organization would merge an arm of MAFF’s Food Safety and Consumer Affairs Bureau and the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare’s Food Department of Food Safety, and the plan most likely [to be enacted] is to establish it as an external agency to MAFF. The goal is to submit proposed revisions to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Establishment Act during the regular Diet session next year.
A system will be created that, by merging functions and eliminating the deleterious effects of vertically segregated administration, will enable rapid response even when problems such as fraudulent labeling of origin or ingredients arise.
The issues that most stick in the Japanese memory, naturally, seem to involve sources of foreign food products: Starlink and BSE, for example. Whether those actually exposed Japanese consumers to potential harm has been seriously questioned. The troubles with food imports from the PRC have been more troubling and have been going on for years. And, of course, Japan has its own malefactors: there was the memorable case of Snow Brand dairy products—man, that was ten years ago!—in which it emerged that plant workers in Osaka hadn’t bothered to follow cleaning and maintenance regulations for valve connections through which milk went while being processed. And then, like Apu on The Simpsons, there’s the more frequent practice of altering use-by dates.
I don’t mean to make Japan sound like some sort of food-contamination horror show. It’s not. Society is advanced and runs well, and particularly in cities such as Tokyo, your complaint is likely to be that the produce and meat are so disturbingly perfect that they seem to have been developed for a magazine shoot rather than for human consumption. But problems do crop up, and the government does need to step in and protect citizens from being victimized.
I’m not sure that shuffling around some agencies is going to work, though. Tokyo already tried that in 2001, with it’s vaunted major overhaul of the federal ministry system, when MHLW itself was created through the mergers of the previous ministries of labor and of health and welfare. MAFF wasn’t reconstituted, but I think it had an agency or two added to it? Anyway, all that was supposed to be the big move that eliminated the deleterious effects of having the same function siloed off in several random places. It hasn’t been a conspicuous success, though I don’t think Japan’s any worse off than it was with the old system. It doesn’t seem likely that a new agency will really do better at ensuring the the Japan Agricultural Standard (JAS) is enforced, but it will probably sound like good news to consumers.