Japan puts pressure on Brussels to keep BSE warning under wraps

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The Independent Online

The Japanese government is suppressing a European Commission report that claims the country is at risk from mad cow disease, according to European diplomats.

Apparently under pressure from their own powerful farming industry, Japanese officials in Brussels and Tokyo are furiously lobbying the Commission not to release the report, due out this September.

"The Japanese government has asked that it be held back or not produced, and we don't know the reasons," an official of the Commission's Tokyo delegation said yesterday. "We suspect that they're worried about a panic reaction among their own people. But our concern is to have all the information available so that we can make sure we have the confidence of consumers."

The report, prepared by the Commission's scientific steering committee (SSC), concludes that although there is no evidence of BSE in Japan, there is an "objective risk" of the disease developing because of past imports of cattle feed from infected countries. The committee's job is to prevent the re-importation of BSE into Europe by identifying countries at risk.

Assessments of countries such as America and Australia have found no risk but Japan scored three on a scale of one to five, indicating that, although no cases have been found, the disease could be incubating in infected cattle.

"Japan requested such an assessment, but when they realised that the data they had supplied showed that there was an objective risk, they withdrew their request," the Commission official said yesterday.

Because of the lobbying, the report is not likely to appear on the internet with the other assessments, although it will be available internally. Officials in Brussels said the document was in draft form and had not been adopted formally and, since the exercise was voluntary, Japan could pull out at any time.

However, they say that the main objective of the survey ­ to protect European consumers ­ has been achieved because the Japanese now remove the so-called specified risk material, such as spinal columns, from exports.

Britain's BSE crisis was widely reported in Japan, but it is generally regarded as a foreign problem with no implications for Japanese consumers. Some scientists, however, claim that Tokyo is turning a blind eye to the possibility that BSE was introduced in bone meal imports from Britain before such products were banned.

Takashi Onodera, a Japanese government adviser on food safety, said: "The SSC's rating is unfair, but it is true that we must intensify our controls."

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