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Food risks in Japan: natural disasters and food safety

By       Message Sylvain Charlebois     Permalink
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The Fukushima nuclear incident in Japan poses a conceptual problem for our current systems of dealing with food risks.  Food safety concerns in the Fukushima region were triggered by natural causes, a devastating earthquake and tsunami.  However, most of the food-safety crises of the last decade were human-induced, and much of our policy is geared towards incidents of this type.  Mad cow, melamine in milk, contaminated peanuts, the numerous salmonella and listeria recalls -- all were ignited by socio-technological and systemic breakdowns.  Though Japan's disaster is profoundly unfortunate, our reactions to these events may improve the ways in which we anticipate and manage risks to food safety.

Strategically, the disparities between these incident types are not trivial. For one, human-induced incidences can always be prevented. Mad cow was borne of weak policy overseeing ruminant-to-ruminant feed. Inadequate maintenance of a meat-slicing machine led to the 2008 Maple Leaf recall of almost 200 products. In the same year, cattle herds in close proximity prompted the E. coli outbreak which killed three people.  These incidences were unanticipated, but ultimately avoidable. When we analyze human-induced incidents, systems usually can be improved.

However, when coping with natural disasters, the focus is more on the speed at which systems can recover, and less so on preventive measures.  Accountability and responsibility are fuzzier concepts in the aftermath of natural disaster scenarios. The aim is to recognize that a human-induced food recall is never random but rather the result of an extended gestation period during which unseen managerial and policy blunders unfurl. Unlike in the case of natural disasters, someone can be, and usually is, blamed. When natural disasters affect food supply chains, the key is to manage what follows in an efficient, systemic and brisk manner. Food strategists and policymakers cannot sufficiently appreciate the potential devastation of a natural disaster until they appreciate it within the context of the larger food system of which it is a part.

A more general solution lies in how public officials communicate risks, directly and indirectly, with the community affected by the incident. Laudably, the Japanese officials have done so, almost every day, but even that may not have been enough. Radiation concerns at the Fukushima plant have heightened domestic food safety concerns at a time when Japanese food self-sufficiency is already low. The earthquake, tsunami and persistent nuclear problems will have a lasting impact in the psyche of the Japanese people.  Japanese consumers, who reacted rather negatively to their own mad cow crisis in 2001 when over 100 McDonalds's restaurants closed for over a week, will need reassurance. In addition, the country's food security policies may need to be revised to ratchet up Japan's agricultural capacity.

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The reality is that natural disasters make victims, and often, lots of them.  Victims are often severely affected in many and various ways, making food safety concerns seem secondary. But radiation knows no borders. At the outset, neighbouring countries, even those as distant as Canada, were concerned about possible food contamination due to excessive radiation levels.

Thankfully, many reports suggest that public health risks due to food contamination have been minimized, at least for now. Japan is known to have a sterling food-safety track record because of a risk-averse mentality that stems from its reliance on food imports. Most western nations are more vulnerable to disaster incidents because laissez-faire government policies encourage crisis-prone systems. This is certainly not Japan's case.

Nevertheless, there have been no reports of injury from radiation in Fukushima. Even when the country recently announced its level 7 designation, the International Atomic Energy Agency asserted that food-safety tests in Japan showed no signs of dangerous levels of radiological contamination. But the war on risk perceptions, specifically within Japan's domestic market, is far from over, and effective communication, rather than scapegoating, will be the weapons of the day.

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Dr. Sylvain Charlebois
Associate Dean - Research and Graduate Studies/
Professor (Food distribution and policies)/
College of Management and Economics/
University of Guelph (CANADA)
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Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is Associate Dean and Professor in the College of Management and Economics at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. From 2004 to 2010, he was a member of the Faculty of Business Administration of the University of (more...)
 

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