“Japan is so far behind in terms of food safety — some of the regulations are 50 or 60 years old.”

Not cutting the mustard

Japan’s food safety regulations lag behind international standards

Text by Gavin Blair  /  Illustration by Guillaume Babusiaux

As the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics approaches, Japan is working to bring its often unique sets of regulations — in a wide range of fields — more in line with international standards. One area receiving particular attention is food safety. While the nation is known for paying fastidious attention to cleanliness and hygiene, this is surprisingly not always reflected in the hard and fast rules covering the food industry.

The government is currently in the process of implementing its own version of the widely used system called HACCP (pronounced “hazap”), which stands for hazard analysis and critical control points. A bill on the regulations is due to be introduced sometime next year. However, a lack of clarity regarding the precise criteria, timing and enforcement of the new rules has some in the food industry concerned.

While many major food firms, particularly those operating internationally, have been following the guidelines for years, that is not the case for many smaller producers, processors or eateries. Furthermore, some believe that even after applying a version of HACCP regulations, Japan will be left playing catch up with global standards at a time when it is also looking to expand its exports of foodstuffs.

HACCP reputedly began as a monitoring system for the manufacture of artillery shells employed by the US in World War II, but it was formalised by NASA during the 1960s as a way of ensuring that food taken on space missions was safe. The crux of the system is to identify the points where biological, chemical, or physical safety hazards can be controlled in the food production process; to establish how a hazard can be prevented or eliminated; and then to monitor each point and take effective action to address dangers. A set of rules, including HACCP, that was designed to ensure safety throughout every step of the food chain became legally binding across the EU in January 2006.

Japanese food producers that sell their wares to Europe, such as some purveyors of the famed Kobe Beef, are already certified, but many of those who only sell domestically have yet to take the plunge.

“Since 2014, our members that export to the EU have been undergoing HACCP checks at their facilities and received approval, meeting the standards and benchmarks agreed between Japan and the EU,” says a spokesperson from the Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association.

A farm HACCP system would include measures to prevent contamination from microbiological hazards such as maintaining temperature controls and keeping raw meat separate from cooked meat.

Food safety regulators from Europe have been making visits to Japan and checking food production facilities to ensure they meet HACCP requirements, according to a researcher at the EU Delegation to Japan.   

Following HACCP protocols is “important for Japan if it wants to increase food exports,” says the researcher. “And it’s not only for exports, but also for [the] Tokyo 2020 [Olympics and Paralympics]. The rules will have to be implemented for food served to the athletes at Olympic Village.”

A plan announced by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW) will see a Japanese version of HACCP covering the entire food chain, including manufacturers, buyers and restaurants, but there will be some crucial differences.

“The J-HACCP system will divide certification into Category A and a less-strict Category B, with facilities such as abattoirs and poultry processing plants having to be Category A,” the researcher explains. “It appears Japan is again going to make its own unique system.”

European food producers and distributors in the country, which are already compliant with the EU version of HACCP, may find themselves having to adapt to a new set of rules, the exact criteria of which have yet to be determined.

Thierry Cohen, president of Italian foodstuffs importer Japan Europe Trading, says his company wouldn’t deal with a supplier that wasn’t HACCP-certified. But, despite the fact that “99% of people in the food industry in Japan know about HACCP,” these particular regulations are not the main focus of his company’s European customers here — they have moved beyond HACCP.

“BRC certification is what they are concerned with; if they are going to buy something foreign, they want to know it’s certified,” says Cohen, referring to the British Retail Consortium Global Standards, a set of guidelines from a London-headquartered organisation that are used around the world. BRC includes HACCP protocols, but has a more extensive scope.

Keita Koido, president of the Japan operations for Norwegian seafood specialist Leroy, also believes that implementing HACCP is not going far enough.

“Rather than HACCP, in Norway and the EU, the focus is on BRC and GLOBALG.A.P.,” says Koido.

G.A.P., or Good Agricultural Practice, is a set of standards aimed at ensuring that farming and fishery operations respect workers’ rights, nature, and consumers.

“Especially in Scandinavia, companies care about regulations for workers and sustainability, whereas in Japan, service comes first; it’s a different mind-set,” says Koido. “Tokyo may be the cleanest city in the world, but there is little focus on sustainability. And Japan is so far behind in terms of food safety — some of the regulations are 50 or 60 years old.”

For now, the Japanese government is intent on promoting HACCP, and the lack of detailed information is a complaint heard across the board.

“The problem is that we still do not know what kind of J-HACCP standard will come out because we have very little information other than the Summary Report issued in December 2016 by the Japanese MHLW, giving just sketchy outlines,” says one food industry source, who asked not to be identified.

It remains unclear who will be responsible for enforcing the new regulations when they will come into effect — and how many will be mandated and how many just recommended.

“The impact of J-HACCP implementation on food-related businesses in Japan could become wide and deep, financially and operationally, but there are still too many uncertainties,” adds the industry source. “And there is too little information for all of the business players to reasonably plan anything ahead to cope with this change.” 

Japan will be left playing catch up with global standards