[REPORTER'S DIARY]Mad Cows and Bad Messages

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[REPORTER'S DIARY]Mad Cows and Bad Messages

Typhoon Danas hit Tokyo hard on Tuesday. However, Japan's biggest news that day did not concern the storm, but rather, mad cow disease.

When mad cow disease spread across Europe last year, the Japanese government proudly announced that Japan was a "safety zone," free from the scourge of the brain-wasting disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

Since the Japanese people had believed the government announcement, they were shocked more at the news that the country had found Asia's first suspected case of the disease.

The astonishment of the Japanese people is now turning into distrust in the Japanese government. Tokyo was revealed to have "pretended as if the country were safe" from mad cow disease, ignoring various warnings from the international society.

According to the Japanese media, the European Commission of the European Union assessed the risk of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in every country in the world. The commission reported this spring that Japan was not safe because it had imported meat-based animal feed from Britain and various other European Union countries.

Although the commission's report said Japan had been risk-free in the past, the country's risk of mad cow disease had now reached to the third level among five levels, which is considered relatively high. The commission's scientific steering committee was preparing to report its findings on Japan but the Japanese government intervened and asked it to withhold the report.

The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries said that the European Union had used a different base from international criteria to conclude that Japan's risk was high and insisted that the nation was very safe from bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Accordingly, the ministry asked the European Commission to withhold the report after it judged that the evaluation of the European Union was improper, Tokyo said.

Consumer groups in Japan began to point out the possibility that the Japanese government had concealed facts. An association of Japanese consumers requested the government to disclose relevant material to the public.

The Japanese government seems to have emphasized that the country was in the "safety zone from bovine spongiform encephalopathy," to protect the nation's livestock-raising farms and meat companies. Even after the news that the country had found a suspected case of mad cow disease, the government was telling the public that the case was not serious.

But the Japanese government should keep it in mind that mad cow disease spread farther in Europe because each European country's government tried to conceal the problem to protect the industry rather than consumers, in the initial stages of the disease.

The situation also has meaning for Korea. Now that bovine spongiform encephalopathy is so near to us, are we really safe? It is time for the government and the people to openly and seriously examine whether we are.

The writer is a Tokyo correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Oh Day-young

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