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Plethora of barriers narrows food choices for Japanese

Europe and Japan share a love of good food. Japan could be described as the gastronomic capital of the world with its overwhelming choice of restaurants (over 800,000) featuring an array of kitchens from Japan and around the world.

However, Japan cannot lay claim to being the food capital of the world. This is because a considerable number of high quality food items available throughout advanced economies around the world still cannot be imported into Japan or are subject to punitive duty rates making them either unprofitable to import or unnecessarily expensive. The loser is the Japanese consumer.

The mission of the Food Committee of the EBC (European Business Community) is for all high quality foods that are readily available in Europe and North America to be readily available in Japan at reasonable prices. How can Japanese consumers have greater choice, quality and value in relation to food?

Greater choice will come from greater availability. However, at present a large number of quality European foods may not be imported into Japan. Over 600 additives widely used in Europe and North America are not accepted in Japan. In late 2002, the MHLW (Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare) seemed to take a positive step by announcing a program to speed up the approval of those additives used widely in the EU and U.S. and which are also deemed safe for food consumption. However, over one year has passed without a single additive from the list of 46 additives under review being approved.

Furthermore, the conditions of use for some of the most commonly used additives in Japan and around the world have such complex regulations relating to usage levels, with a multitude of categories, that some European foods containing much lower levels of the same additive that common Japanese foods contain are banned from import simply because they do not “fit” the current regulations. The EBC will continue to make efforts together with the MHLW to speed up this important program of gaining approval for safe additives and simplifying the usage conditions of the most commonly used additives to ensure that no imported food is unfairly blocked from import.

Food safety has become a major issue in Japan. After the first case of BSE emerged in Japan in September 2001, it also became a highly politicized issue. In such an environment, it has proved hard to convince authorities that European or American standards for the use of additives should be accepted. It seems every authorization contains a risk, and risks are to be avoided; the precautionary principle has been brought to the highest possible levels indeed.

Food safety has also been high on the agenda of the EU. For many years, much of the relevant legislation has been derived from Brussels. The European Food Safety Authority has been set up to coordinate the risk assessments of member states, thus increasing their effectiveness. Member states have set up their own national food safety authorities. These are in charge of risk communication, and, in some cases, of supervision. That the European system is working reasonably well can be seen from the fact that consumers feel generally confident about the food that is available to them.

The question has to be asked why such a heightened state of anxiety around food exists in Japan? In this respect, isolated examples of fraud and mismanagement by local companies have played by far the greatest role in creating this scenario. It is unfortunate that well- meaning food producers and importers, both Japanese and foreign, have suffered from the fallout.

The final barrier between Japanese consumers and high quality European food at reasonable prices is the punitive import duty rates on certain items. Although there have been some reductions, a check across a number of food categories shows Japan’s import duty rates to be significantly higher than those of its major trading partners. Since most European foods are unique and do not threaten Japanese food companies, no benefits can be seen from such a policy. Furthermore, many of these imported foods are in fact ingredients used by Japanese food manufacturers. This raises the cost of ingredients for Japanese producers and, coupled with the other high fixed costs, actually forces some companies to move production to China.

In conclusion, it is rather perplexing to see, on the one hand, the growing demand for high quality European foods from one of the most sophisticated and widely traveled populations in the world, conjoined with a system that seems designed to prevent these same consumers from getting the very foods they demand, denying them one of the great pleasures of life.

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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.