Agenda Item 4.1 GF 01/03   

FAO/WHO Global Forum of Food Safety Regulators
Marrakesh, Morocco, 28-30 January 2002

Food Safety Regulatory Issues

Mitsuhiro Ushio,
Director, International Food Safety Planning,
Policy Planning Division, Department of Food Safety,
Pharmaceutical and Food Safety Bureau, Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, Japan


First of all, I would like to express my respect for their efforts to the Government of Morocco, the secretariat of the FAO and WHO, and all those who were engaged in preparing for the first Global Forum. Also, I would like to thank the organizer of this Forum for this opportunity to speak to all of you here today about food safety regulation in Japan.

As you know, the Global Forum was established, in response to the Communiqué of the Kyusyu/Okinawa G-8 Summit in 1999. The purpose of the Forum is to encourage FAO and WHO to organize periodic international meetings of the food safety regulators to advance the process of science-based public consultations. The Japanese government strongly hopes that the Forum will be a great success.

Needless to say, it is important to take comprehensive action to keep food safe in all processes covering farm to table. In this sense, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW) shares the responsibility of the provision of safe food with the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (MAFF). Both ministries individually regulate food based on related laws. The MAFF is responsible for food production and quality assurance and the MHLW is responsible for stable food distribution and food safety.

As an expert of food safety, I will discuss the current regulatory status of food in Japan.


Food safety regulation is carried out based on the Food Sanitation Law. This law was enacted in 1947 and revised several times as circumstances demanded. The law is a comprehensive food law consisting of 36 articles.

Here, I will outline four major points of the law which may help you understand the current regulatory situation in Japan.

First, the law covers a wide range of targets.

The law stipulates that the purpose of the law is to prevent the occurrence of health hazards arising from human consumption of food. The law covers not only foods and drinks, but also additives including natural flavouring agents, and equipment and containers/packages that are used for handling, manufacturing, processing or delivering food. The equipment and containers/packages are limited to products that come into direct contact with foods. The law also covers persons who carry out food-related business such as food manufacturing and food import. The law, however, does not apply to medical drugs and quasi-drugs.

Second, the law gives authority to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare.

This authority enables the MHLW to take legal action toward prior issues smoothly and quickly. If the authority is not given, the MHLW has to revise the law, in order to give legal force to MHLW's actions or to apply penal regulations to offenders. The revision of the law is however time-consuming, due partly to the delay of discussion at Diet resulting from social and political factors.

For example, the law stipulates that the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, from the viewpoint of public health, may establish standards and specifications for food or additives intended for sale. The law authorizes the MHLW to establish necessary standards and specifications, as needed, without revising the law itself. Lately, genetically modified foods, or GM foods, became the target of regulation under the law. This is also a good example of the provision of authority. The MHLW may regulate GM foods by establishing standards without revising the law. We have prepared a country report on the regulation of GM foods. If you are interested in details, please consult the report.

Third, the law gives important roles to local governments in regulating food and the MHLW shares responsibility with local governments.

From beginning to the present, the purpose of the law has been focused on the prevention of food poisoning. In this viewpoint, the law regulates a wide range of food-related businesses. The number of targeted facilities rises to about 4 million nation-wide. About 2.6 million of them are required to obtain a business license from the Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare. In order to carry out regulatory work for a large number of facilities, many employees are necessary. However, the central government has only 62 employees in the section that is responsible for these businesses. You can easily imagine that the number of employees is not enough to conduct daily inspections for all facilities and give guidance to them. The law authorizes each local government to take necessary measures to businesses in the location under the jurisdiction of the government. The measures include establishing necessary standards for business facilities, giving or revoking licenses, giving guidance, and discontinuing or suspending the business. Also, Japan has another type of administrative organizations that are exclusively responsible for regional health and hygiene. These organizations, called health centres are taking important roles in safety assurance of food in the region concerned.

Fourth, Japan uses a comprehensive sanitary control system based on the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) system.

Japan established this comprehensive system in 1995 when the Food Sanitation Law was revised. Under the system, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare gives approval to individual manufacturing or processing facilities, according to food groups, if the Ministry confirms, after due examination, that hygiene is controlled appropriately for these foods. In the system, manufactures or processors establish manufacturing or processing methods of the target foods and sanitary-control methods, based on the HACCP system. Then, the Minister confirms whether these established methods comply with the approval standards. The manufacturing or processing methods approved under the system is considered to meet the standards for manufacturing or processing under the law. This means that the system enables the application of a wide variety of methods to food production without following the uniform standards. Currently, there are six food categories as targets of the system. These categories include milk, dairy products, meat products, fish-paste products, non-alcoholic beverages, and foods, which were packed into a container or package and pasteurized under pressure, such as canned foods and retort foods.

Japan started to implement a new law in 1998 in order to encourage food-related businesses to introduce the HACCP system. This law financially supports businesses. They may receive a long-term, low-interest loan necessary to improve their facilities and equipment and may obtain preferential taxation. This law is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. The MHLW shares the responsibility of the sanitary-control management with the MAFF.


I briefly explained some important points of Japanese food safety programme, based on the Food Sanitation Law. Unfortunately, health hazards are not completely controlled, despite comprehensive and intensified regulation.

Take food poisoning, which is a long-standing challenge in food safety regulation. The number of incidents has not decreased in the past several years. Some 1,960 incidents and some 40 thousand patients were reported in 1997, some 3 thousand incidents and some 46 thousand patients reported in 1998, and some 2.7 thousand incidents and some 35 thousand patients reported in 1999. Especially, the following two cases drew much attention at home and abroad. One is a case caused by enterohaemorrhagic Escherichia coli O-157, or EHEC O-157. The other is a case caused by powdered skim milk contaminated with enterotoxin. The former occurred in 1996, ending up with around 10 thousand patients and eight deaths. The latter occurred in 2000 and the number of incidents rose to 15 thousand.

Also, the hottest current issue is mad cow disease, or BSE. As many of you here already know, Japanese authorities announced September 10 that a suspected case of BSE was found. The news promptly spread in and outside Japan. Now, the case is under investigation to identify the cause and the scope of spread.

The BSE case taught us a lot. One, consistent approaches covering farm to table are necessary for safety assurance of food. Two, when an issue occurs somewhere in the world, we should not overlook the fact that a large quantity of food and feed are globally distributed. Three, we need a certain method or system to trace problems that have occurred, in order to identify the cause and conditions.


I would like to raise issues to be considered as food safety regulators and discuss with all of you. I hope my talk sparks a great discussion in the forum.

1) "Farm to Table" Food Safety Control System

The objective of reduced risk can be achieved most effectively by the principle of prevention throughout the production, processing and marketing chain. To achieve maximum consumer protection it is essential that safety should be built into food products from production through to consumption. This calls for a comprehensive and integrated farm-to-table approach in which the producer, processor, transporter, vendor, and consumer all play a vital role in ensuring food safety and quality.

Conceptually the importance of this approach has been recognized by food safety regulators in Japan. I think the current BSE problem in Japan gave me a feeling of reality. In order to ensure meat safety, at the farm level, farmers and workers must control safety of feed, pesticide and other chemical inputs and recognize potential sources of microbial contaminants from water, soil, animals and humans, while regulators take responsibility for auditing performance of the food system through monitoring and surveillance activities.

It is not difficult to express this concept into words. However, it is extremely difficult to implement this concept in the current real world. For example, I can list some difficulties to be overcome; such as

  1. there could be several years difference from feed production, farm operation, procession, distribution and consumption
  2. there could be geographical difference between feed production, farm operation, procession, distribution and consumption
  3. a lot of experts with different backgrounds must be involved

In order to implement effective, efficient and uniform control measures across the whole food chain throughout the country, it is important to consider the type and size of the organization(s) that are necessary to implement the food safety strategy. Where it has not been possible to have a single unified structure or an integrated food control system, for various historical and political reasons, it is necessary for this strategy to clearly identify the role of each agency, to avoid duplication of effort, and to bring about a measure of coherence between them. It should also identify areas or segments of the food chain that require special attention and need additional resources for strengthening.

I acknowledged that recently some countries restructured food safety administrative structure into "single food safety agency" and I have heard that the consolidation of all responsibility for protecting public health and food safety into a single food safety agency with clearly defined terms of reference has considerable merit. I would like to hear those experiences and share with all the participants.

2) Safety of Imported Food

With an expanding world economy; liberalization of food trade; growing consumer demand; developments in food science and technology; and improvements in transport and communication, international trade in fresh and processed food is increasing rapidly. Regarding food and feed, I can safely say that borders no longer exist.

It goes without saying that a country like Japan, which relies on imported food for more than 60% of food supply (calorie bases), must consider the safety of imported food. Any countries, which import more or less of food, need to think about how they can enhance the safety of imported food. Meanwhile, access of countries to food export markets will continue to depend on their capacity to meet the regulatory requirements of importing countries.

Now I would like to ask all of the participants how the safety of imported foods are ensured. There are some strategies such as, sampling and testing of imported food at the port of entry, requiring attachments of test results and/or inspection certificate with food, allowing the importation of food only from establishments recognized as compliant with requirements established by importing countries, or visiting exporting countries and educating and training food inspectors and workers in food industries.

Further, in order to examine the safety of imported food, first food safety standards must be established at a national level in accordance with Codex standards, guidelines or based on risk assessment.

In the future, if the Codex standards are widely accepted, and audit methods, procedure and criteria are internationally agreed, then audit results from Country A conducted by country B or an internationally recognized audit Organization could be shared globally, and reduce the cost of audit by different countries.

3) Countermeasures to newly developed food and food derived from modern technologies

Talking of newly developed food; I should start from food derived from biotechnology or GMOs. Because this issue is not only new, but also safety assessment of these food is substantially different from "traditional" food safety assessment, I can say a large number of countries still grope in the dark on how governments can cope with this issue. The Japanese government has submitted a country paper on this issue, so I would like you to read it for your further information. To be short, I think there are political and technical discussions on both safety assessment and labelling.

Because of the increase of allergic diseases and increasing consumer concerns of allergies caused by food consumption in Japan, the mandatory labelling requirement of major allergic food has just implemented in Japan. It's critical for people who have food allergies to identify them and to avoid foods that cause allergic reactions. Some foods can cause severe illness and, in some cases, a life-threatening allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) that can constrict airways in the lungs, severely lower blood pressure, and cause suffocation by the swelling of the tongue or throat. I believe there are some common foods that cause allergies internationally, and some food to cause allergies in specific countries and/or areas. I think we should take some action against at least those foods that may cause a life-threatening allergic reaction.

With the extension of the average life expectancy, the increase in cancer patients and death from cancer, and antipathy against medical treatment, increasing requests have been made for allowing the distribution of vitamins, etc. as foods, which have been used for medical purposes. If the product has a clear labelling of reducing health risk, it will be considered as a medicine and regulated under Pharmaceutical law in Japan. Recently those food with intermediate labelling between medicine and food are becoming popular among those who are interested in health, have a high level of education, have accumulated information through eating experience, and so on. So, at least in Japan, ensuring intermediate food between medicine and food would be one new challenge in the food safety area, and at this occasion I would like to hear some experiences in other countries.

The new issues I raised above could be the tips of an iceberg. In the future we might be faced with difficult brand-new problems. At that occasion how will the national governments in you countries cope with the new problems?

4) Ensuring the effectiveness of food safety system

In order to achieve certain objectives in the regulatory purpose and to encourage/guide people forward in the right direction, generally speaking, the strategies could be; 1) appeal to an individual moral sense and ethics, 2) economical inducements 3) education and communication, and 4) regulatory procedures including guidance, recommendation and legal action with penal regulations.

Government regulatory systems can provide a framework for maintenance of food safety across the food continuum "from farm to table." Food safety laws, regulations, directives, standards, policies and procedures form a foundation for food control systems. Regulatory requirements establish limits and responsibilities, but are of little value without effective complements by all the stakeholders.

Assurance of food safety is a combined effort. Food producers at all levels of production bear a responsibility for the production of safe foods. At the farm level, farmers and workers must control pesticide and other chemical inputs and recognize potential sources of microbial contaminants from water, soil, animals and humans. The food processing and transportation industries must assess where food safety may be jeopardized at critical points in food production and transport and take appropriate measures to control these potential hazards. Retail establishments, restaurants and other food vendors must also understand how to ensure proper sanitary practices and temperature controls. The consumer's role may be the most important in that s(he) controls food safety at the point closest to food consumption. The consumer needs the knowledge, understanding and incentive to prepare and store safe foods for family and friends. So each stakeholder must fulfill each responsibility in order to ensure safer food.

In Japan, education for the school children on food safety and voluntary food safety activities by food industries are recognized as extremely important for food safety, therefore these programmes are supported by the government. I would like to know about various programmes in your countries on this aspect.


Needless to say, foods are essential for our lives and safety should come first.

Food hygiene is a classical area in the public health programme, and today it is still a globally significant issue, as the WHO mentions.

We, those responsible for food safety, are expected to take appropriate measures not only for long-standing issues such as food poisoning but also for newly emerging issues, such as GM foods and BSE. In handling such issues, we have to make a decision based on sound science and provide information in an appropriate and timely manner to related people, especially consumers. It is what is called risk communication. Also, each member country should harmonize its own regulations with international standards and specifications from the viewpoint of smooth food trade. Thus, since Codex Alimentarius Commission's programme is growing important, I expect the progress of the programme and your cooperation. Also, we should learn many things from not only positive but also negative instances in member countries through such a forum.

Japan, as the presidency holder, is working to prepare for the third session of the Codex Ad Hoc Intergovernmental Task Force on Foods Derived from Modern Biotechnology scheduled for next March in Yokohama. As the development of GMOs is progressing, the Japanese government would like to complete standards for the safety assessment under international consensus as soon as possible. I expect that many of you here will participate in the session and make a contribution to consensus building.

In closing, on behalf of the participants here, I would like to thank the Government of Morocco again for hosting the forum. Thank you very much.