By Takehiro Ito and Yukako Oishi / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WritersLabeling of origin of ingredients (see below) for processed foods will be made mandatory in Japan this summer. This is a major amendment that involves the labeling of all processed foods with the name of the country of origin for each ingredient. The aim is to assist consumers in their selection of products and help expand the consumption of domestically produced products, but there are concerns that the labeling methods are so complicated they could confuse consumers.
The Cabinet Office Consumer Commission’s section in charge of food labeling decided, at a July 28 meeting, to approve a proposed amendment by the government to apply food labeling standards that would make such labeling of ingredients mandatory. While the majority were in favor of the amendment, there was also notable opposition. Differing opinions included: “Labeling that indicates the country of origin for ingredients — which is important information for consumers — represents one step forward” and “The labeling is complicated and will cause confusion. There are more disadvantages than advantages.”
After submitting a report to the prime minister, the Consumer Affairs Agency will revise the standards as early as this month and implement the new labeling system. The transitional period will continue until March 2022.
Even under the current system, when consumers in Japan buy grilled eel or dried fish, for example, they see the country of origin written on the product label, as in “Eel (China) ” and “Horse mackerel (domestic).” However, such declarations of country of origin only apply to processed foods that have a low degree of processing and where differences in country of origin are expected to have a considerable impact on consumer product selection.
Such labeling is thought to currently appear on about 10 percent of processed foods. The amendment will extend such labeling to cover all processed foods. The change applies to a diverse range of goods including noodles, confectionery, frozen foods and canned items.
A Consumer Affairs Agency official said the impetus for the amendment is “the insufficient amount of information reaching consumers amid progress in the globalization of food and products being distributed that are made from ingredients sourced from various countries.”
The amendment was also proposed with the aim of answering calls from consumers who want to select products made from Japanese ingredients. In June last year, the plan to expand the scope of declaring the country of origin was included in the Japan Revitalization Strategy, which was approved by the Cabinet to prepare for the implementation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement.
What are the new labeling rules?
The principles are “the ingredient that is the heaviest is to be labeled,” and “if the product mixes ingredients that originated in multiple countries, the ingredients should be listed in order of weight (starting with the heaviest) and separated by commas.” For example, sausages might be labeled with “Ingredients: Pork (USA, Canada), pork fat.”
The way the amendment allows exceptions to these principles has been called difficult to understand. The source countries for ingredients in processed foods frequently change, so the amendment also takes into account the problem of not being able to reprint food labels in time.
The new rules allow for multiple countries to be listed, with the word “or” in between, in cases where a particular ingredient could originate from a number of different countries. The order in which these countries appear on labels is based on past data relating to ingredient use. This would result in a label such as “Ingredient: Pork (USA or Canada) Order based on data from Year XX of the Heisei era.” There is no way to tell from the label what country the ingredient listed is actually from.
In addition, if the country of origin could be any of three or more different countries, the new amendment simply allows for the word “imported” to be written on the label.
“Or” and “imported” may also appear concurrently. When the label says, “Ingredient: Pork (imported or domestic) Order based on data from Year XX of the Heisei era,” it would mean “imported or domestic ingredients may have been used to make this product, but past data indicates that imported ingredients are used more frequently.”
That kind of explanation is linguistically unnatural. Furthermore, when the ingredient to be declared is also a processed food, the country in which the ingredient was processed can be declared as the country of origin order based.
Estimates by the Japanese Consumers’ Co-operative Union (JCCU) suggest the new rules could involve more exceptions than declarations actually following the principles.
“The change will create more complicated declarations, leading to misunderstanding among consumers,” said Chikako Futamura, who heads the JCCU’s Member Relations Division.
In approving the proposed revision, the Consumer Commissions section also stipulated the following conditions: Setting targets for levels of understanding among consumers and industry; surveying the percentage of labeling that adheres to the principles, versus the exceptions; verifying the results of the new system and conducting reviews as necessary.
Maki Morita, a consumer affairs consultant well versed in food labeling, said: “It will be important to see how the new system will maintain the balance between accuracy of the labeling, ease of understanding and operational feasibility for business operators. Various means of providing information, such as the internet, should also be explored.”
Discussions on this subject should not end. It is essential to continue determining the new rules’ advantages and disadvantages for consumers and business operators.
Monitoring capacity may fall short
There must also be supervision to assess whether ingredients’ country of origin are correctly declared under the new system.
At present, food labeling is monitored by about 1,300 national food labeling inspectors, who conduct on-site inspections at shops and factories. If an error is discovered in labeling, instructions and directives are issued for improvement. If the directives are not followed, business operators are fined up to ¥100 million. Twenty-eight instructions and two directives were issued in fiscal 2015.
However, the new rules will involve all domestically processed food products. This has led to concern, with one person saying current staffing levels may not be enough to cover the expanded scope of the items.
Others wonder whether business operators will be able to fully understand the complicated labeling rules in the first place. They must check past data related to the use of ingredients for their full range of products and change the labeling. Documents must also be kept that prove the country of origin. This would involve over 1,000 different products and over 10,000 individual ingredients for major manufacturers, according to the Japan Food Industry Association.
“This will also involve many small and midsize businesses,” an official of the association’s planning and research department said. “To ensure no mistakes arise due to insufficient understanding, we want information to be widely disseminated in advance of any supervision.”
It has also been pointed out that the amendment could prevent some ingredients from being used when producing processed foods in Japan and that procurement costs may increase, as it is not customary in many countries to provide documents or other proof of ingredients’ nation of origin.
■ Labeling of origin of ingredients
A system stipulated by national food labeling standards. For processed foods, 22 groups of foods (seasoned meats, dried seafood, etc.) and four food items (grilled eel, dried bonito shavings, etc.) must have the country of origin of their ingredients declared on their labels under the current system. It is already mandatory to declare the place of origin for all perishable foods, such as vegetables and fish.