The Actual Risk of Consuming Chinese Food Products in Japan

Having recognized that consumer awareness relating to food safety was well established as early as the 1980s and 1990s, this first conventional explanation is proven to be problematic in clarifying the rise in Japanese negativity towards Chinese food in the 2000s. This chapter will now turn its attention to the second commonly accepted factor: a heightened risk of consuming Chinese foods.

Despite all the media and public attention, and indeed ‘demonization’ of Chinese food imports, according to the statistics of the Japanese Department of Food Safety (Iyaku Shokuhinkyoku Shokuhin Anzenbu) the number of Chinese violations against the Japanese food safety regulations remained constant throughout the 2000s and has in fact decreased since 2006 (see Fig. 8)[1]. Moreover, this decrease in violations has taken place as the gross volume as well as the overall proportion of Chinese imports has steadily increased, and while inspection levels are

Chinese Violations against Japanese food safety regulations (Food Sanitation Law, JAS Law, Food Safety Basic Law), 2000-2014

Fig. 8 Chinese Violations against Japanese food safety regulations (Food Sanitation Law, JAS Law, Food Safety Basic Law), 2000-2014

comparatively high.[2] Simply put, despite the growing volume of Chinese produce imported to Japan, the proportion of those imports that is found to have violated the food safety law is in fact decreasing.

Although this is clearly an imperfect measure, it seriously calls into question the standard narrative of the increased risk of consuming Chinese food imports.

Moreover, this is a different picture from the narrative we read in the above mentioned annually published summary (as opposed to the ‘raw’ statistics) by the MHLW, in which it is always clearly stated that ‘China accounts for the highest [amount of violations against the Food Safety Basic Law]’, mentioning an absolute number of cases. What is lacking in this portrayal by the ministry is a calculation of the number of violations, relative to the actual amount of imports; which in the case of China is ever increasing (see Table 2). When confronting Yamashita Kazuhito, an expert on Japanese agricultural policy, with this odd way of reporting, he replied, ‘It is not the case, that what the ministries tell in their reports, are not facts. They report the facts, but from their own perspective. What bothers me is the way they present the facts, and what their intention behind this presentation is’.[3] The fact that for 10 years now, the ministry has been sticking to this method of portrayal does raise doubts about its intentions and implies that food has become one arena in which conflicts of globalization and its impacts are settled. Also conversely, this kind of ranking in food politics suggests that food itself contributes to national claims of qualitative differentiation and identity politics.

So far, this chapter has evaluated two potential explanations for the negative perceptions of imported Chinese food products in Japan. The first, the perceived increase in food safety risk mentioned above, is shown to be problematic as a closer look at the Japanese government’s own statistics suggests that food safety violations by Chinese food imports have remained relatively constant since 2000, and even decreased despite increasing import volumes and temporarily increasing controls. A second explanation, that Japanese food safety awareness developed contemporaneously with the increase in media coverage on China-related food incidents, is also found to be problematic due to the existence of an already well-established consumer awareness of food

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safety in the late 1980s and 1990s. This chapter argues that the link between rising food safety awareness and Chinese imports has been fostered by other key factors. However, before addressing these, attention will briefly be turned towards the particular role China plays within the formation of Japanese national as well as culinary identity.

  • [1] Data retrieved from Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW). Imported FoodsInspection Services Home Page. Statistics of Imported Foods Monitoring.
  • [2] Reading from the statistics, the number of inspections during a certain year is linked to thenumber of violations in the years beforehand. ‘Trouble countries’ such as Ecuador or Vietnamreceive a great number of examinations as a reaction to numerous violations in the past years.(Interestingly, this does not seem to apply to the USA, which, despite one ofthe highest percentagesof violations/import, barely exceed the level of 10% of import examinations.) Also 15—20% of theChinese food imports are checked, which is a high portion, especially when compared to othercountries such as South-Korea, the USA, or Thailand. However, a manifestation of the improvingfood safety records of China can be detected in the declining amount of examinations on Chineseimports in recent years. Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW). Imported FoodsInspection Services Home Page. Statistics of Imported Foods Monitoring.
  • [3] Yamashita Kazuhito, interview with author, December 10, 2015, Tokyo, Japan.
 
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