A news item the other day said aloud what has been whispered for more than a year: Japan will soon ease its restrictions on imports of U.S. beef. Meat from cattle as old as 30 months will be allowed in; today it must be from cattle no older than 20 months.
Nine years ago Japan was a huge and growing market for U.S. beef. Then a Holstein in Washington state was found to have bovine spongiform encephalopathy, sometimes called (to the annoyance of cattlemen) "mad cow disease." Panic ensued in Japan.
Never mind that you don't need the fingers on one hand to count the number of BSE cases the U.S. has had. American beef was banned. Lifting the ban took years. Reassessing import-limiting 20-month rule took several more.
All this was done in the name of protecting the public health. Fair enough. BSE has been linked with variant Cruetzfeld-Jakob disease in humans; vCJD is a nasty, brain-eating bug that causes excruciating deaths.
But as I've argued (http://tiny.cc/…), the Japanese government reaction was disproportional to the risk posed. As alarming as vCJD is, the number of cases of it have been minimal -- a few hundred, worldwide, over a couple of decades. A few dozen in Japan, and many of those traceable to eating beef in the one country that experienced significant BSE, Great Britain.
In other words, Japanese officials could have saved more lives by erecting traffic signals at four or five critical intersections in Tokyo.
When I've said this in the past, the rejoinder I've sometimes heard is, "Well, risk assessments are more sensitive for something you put in your mouth. People don't want to take chances with food."
Consider the everyday Japanese diet. Miso soup, oshinko (pickled vegetables) and soy sauce are as common as sandwiches in our diet and they're all high in salt. Hypertension, which is linked to a high-salt diet, causes tens of thousands of deaths a year in Japan.
If the Japanese feared putting dangerous things in their mouths, many more of them would buy low-sodium soy sauce. If their government wanted to protect the public against risky food, it would push for low-sodium soy sauce.
Does anyone doubt this would save more lives than the hysterical, politically inspired reaction to BSE?