Reassured? Don't be. If there's one thing Japanese have learned: when government big shots go before the cameras during a crisis to say that everything is daijobu (O.K.), it may be time to head for the hills. This time the assurances concern the arrival in Japan of mad-cow disease, which can cause a debilitating and potentially fatal ailment in humans who eat contaminated beef. But in September 1999 it was a nuclear accident in Tokaimura and it took dissembling authorities more than a day to tell nearby residents to evacuate their homes. In July last year, officials stalled in admitting that milk from Snow Brand dairy was laced with bacteria, and eventually more than 14,000 people became ill. In the 1980s, more than 1,400 hemophiliacs were infected with HIV-tainted blood, even though the government had assured the public the blood supply was safe. Earlier this year, while Europe was destroying thousands of head of cattle to combat mad-cow disease, Japan was staunchly confident that the disease wouldn't breach its shoreline. "We've taken bold, decisive measures," an official at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries told TIME. "I don't think we need to worry about the spread of the disease here."
With such a spotty track record, panic can spread from the tiniest sliver of news—and that's exactly what's happening. So far, just one cow has been diagnosed with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE. But Japanese are clearly concerned. "We sure aren't willing to trust the word of the government right now," says Hiroko Mizuhara, secretary-general of the Consumers Union of Japan. Ordinary householders are expressing the same opinion with their pocketbooks. Beef sales have fallen—one of the largest Japanese beef wholesalers reports a slide of more than 40%—even though many establishments have posted signs announcing they don't sell or serve homegrown beef. Countries across Asia, as well as Australia, have banned Japanese beef. Even impoverished Cambodia won't take the stuff.
The government, and the country's $9.9 billion beef and dairy industries, have only themselves to blame for a reaction that is, so far, way out of proportion to the actual health risk. Much about the disease is still a mystery. Humans probably contract it by eating beef products that include the brain and spinal cord of infected cows. One neuro epidemiologist who is an expert on the disease estimates the chance of contracting BSE at one in 900 billion. And yet hundreds of schools have scratched not only beef from their lunchroom menus, but also milk, even though there is no evidence the disease can be transmitted by drinking milk.
BSE was first detected in Britain's cattle herds in the mid-1980s. Nearly 200,000 animals were afflicted, and by last year, the disease had spread to the European continent. It was the disease's migration from animals to humans in 1996, in the form of a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), that put the public on edge: more than 80 people in Britain have died of CJD. Late last year, organizations like the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization began warning other beef-producing nations, including Japan, to beware. Nearly a year ago, Japan agreed to participate in a European risk-analysis study. Less than a month before the report was to be published, however, Tokyo backed out. "Japan started to send data, to participate," says Dominique Inoue, an E.U. spokeswoman in Tokyo. "But then it decided not to be part of it anymore. This was completely voluntary, so there was nothing the committee could do." Takashi Onodera, chairman of the Ministry of Agriculture's BSE committee, said he saw the unpublished report, in June, and it said Japan was "likely to present a BSE risk."
That prediction came true in August when a five-year-old Holstein cow started behaving strangely on a dairy farm in the city of Shiroi in Chiba prefecture, east of Tokyo. The animal was listless, disoriented and had trouble standing. The farmer took the cow to a slaughterhouse, where it was killed and tested to see if its meat was safe to eat. It was declared unsafe. The slaughterhouse informed local health officials and the brain was preserved and sent to laboratories for testing. The first test of the brain at a national research center in Tsukuba on Aug. 15 was negative for BSE. But another sample had been sent to a livestock health facility in Sakura, not far from the Shiroi dairy. There, veterinarian Akio Ikeda was tasked with examining 30 to 40 brain samples for BSE, part of a routine surveillance. When he got the sample from Shiroi, he found something he had never seen before. He compared the sample to photographs of BSE-infected brains and found the connection: tiny clear spaces—air pockets—where there should have been normal cells. "It was an eye-popper," he told TIME. That was Aug. 24.
Slow-footed researchers, poorly planned crisis management and a desire to save the beef industry from bad publicity combined to delay the BSE diagnosis. Ikeda wasn't informed that the brain matter had come from a cow showing symptoms of BSE. "It was just another sample; it wasn't labeled as urgent," he says, explaining why the lab waited 15 days to dissect and examine the brain. After his discovery, however, he immediately contacted the Ministry of Agriculture. Despite the obvious risk, the process dragged. "The orders about what to do were slow in coming," says Ikeda. "I was surprised." (Ministry officials declined repeated requests for an explanation.) Two weeks passed before Ikeda sent the brain sample to the Tsukuba laboratory via a courier service. That lab, a government-run facility, didn't confirm the BSE diagnosis until Sept. 10. "This involves a lot of bureaucratic red tape, and since no one thought this would happen in Japan, there was very little sense of urgency," says Onodera, the Ministry of Agriculture's BSE expert.
Once the diagnosis was confirmed, the government grabbed the ball—only to fumble big time. Agriculture officials initially announced that the carcass of the infected cow had been incinerated. Four days later, they sheepishly admitted that, in fact, the carcass had been rendered into bonemeal and sold to a feed manufacturer—which meant the infected remains could very well have ended up being fed to more cows. That's how experts believe BSE is spread, and the reason Europe has banned the use of meat and bonemeal (MBM). "There's no excuse for the fact that we did not burn the cow's remains," Agriculture Minister Takebe conceded last week. "But it has only been three weeks since we have had a mad cow case, so this is all still very new to us."
Considering Europe's long struggle with the disease, it shouldn't have been. Japan's government, in fact, told farmers not to use imported MBM in 1996, but imposed no penalties on violators. (Domestically produced feed was deemed safe.) Last month it discovered that at least 100 ranchers and farmers in six prefectures either didn't know about or ignored the ban and continued using imported feed. And Japan was still importing MBM from Europe as recently as last year, insisting that it was being used as fertilizer or to feed chickens and pigs. Last week Japan finally banned the use of MBM altogether and promised tougher enforcement. In fact, four years ago, a Ministry of Health committee recommended that Japan stop using MBM completely. "All they said at the Ministry of Agriculture was 'no worries,'" says Hokkaido University neuro epidemiologist Kiyotaro Kondo, a government adviser on the disease.
Today, Japan is trotting out the familiar tough talk. The Ministry of Health says it spot-checked 4.6 million cattle over the last two weeks, and will test the remains of every slaughtered animal. It is asking manufacturers to refrain from using cattle parts when making bouillon cubes, drugs and even cosmetics, though no one is thought to have contracted CJD from pancake makeup. "This will reassure people that beef is safe," insists Health Minister Sakaguchi. The safest bet: stick to sushi.