Japan agency issued no warnings despite multiple allergic reactions against soap

Despite a legal obligation to respond swiftly to protect the public, the Consumer Affairs Agency did not act on reports of health problems caused by a certain brand of soap for more than a year, it has been learned.

The agency first heard in January last year from the National Consumer Affairs Center of wheat allergies possibly triggered by bars of face soap called "Cha no Shizuku" (lit.: drop of tea) made by Yuuka Co.

The agency also heard about allergy problems from the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry in October 2010 and from Tokyo's Setagaya Ward government early this year. However, it did not issue a warning about the product until June.

The agency is required by law to respond swiftly and appropriately to compile and analyze information on serious consumer-related incidents and make the results public to protect consumers' safety.

As the soap caused many health problems, the agency is likely to face public criticism for its slow handling of the matter, observers say.

The product was produced and sold by Yuuka, a cosmetics manufacturing and sales company in Onojo, Fukuoka Prefecture. About 47 million bars had been sold via mail order as of December last year.

Currently, a revised product is on sale under the same name.

Users of the former version reported such problems as swelling around their eyes and itching on their faces to consumer affairs organizations. Many complained of serious symptoms, such as drops in their blood pressure and difficulty in breathing.

Based on reports from Yuuka, the Japanese Society of Allergology has judged that at least 569 people are likely to have suffered health problems due to the soap.

According to the agency, it received a phone call in January last year from the consumer center saying doctors had informed it of six users who had suffered allergic reactions to the soap.

The center gave the product's name to the agency and asked whether it needed to file an official notice of the problem with the agency under the Consumer Safety Law.

The law requires central government bodies to provide the agency with information on serious incidents involving consumer products. When the agency receives such information, it is obliged to utilize it to protect consumers' safety--compiling and analyzing it and publicizing the results.

However, the agency did not tell the center to issue a notice for consumers or take any specific measures itself.

Ward office also brushed off

The agency also shelved a similar report from the Setagaya Ward office, which in February had received a complaint of an allergic reaction to the soap.

The user suffered symptoms of shock throughout the body, so the ward office also consulted the agency about whether it needed to file a notice with the agency in keeping with the law.

However, the agency again did not give such an instruction.

A related ward official said: "I wanted the agency to deal with this valuable information more sincerely. Its response is too sloppy."

The agency further received a report from the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry about health problems associated with hydrolyzed wheat, a kind of wheat protein used in the soap. Again, the agency failed to take appropriate measures.

It finally issued warnings for consumers to be careful about the soap on June 7, nearly 20 days after Yuuka began voluntarily recalling the product on May 20.

On Nov 16, the agency made public the process of its handling of the matter, but concealed the fact it had received reports from the consumer center and the ward office about the problems with the soap.

"We received many reports every day, but we couldn't respond swiftly due to staff shortages," an agency official said. "We are seriously reflecting on our conduct, as we could not utilize valuable information effectively."

The hydrolyzed wheat in question is a substance called Glupal-19S. It was used to increase the foaming capacity and moisturizing effects of the soap.

The substance is also used in other companies' products. In addition to Yuuka's soap, 34 products have been voluntarily recalled.

Firm faces nationwide lawsuits

The soap has already become a court issue.

A woman in Sendai filed a suit against the company with the Sendai District Court in August, demanding it pay her medical fees.

Also, teams of lawyers to support victims of allergies believed to have been triggered by the soap in more than 10 prefectures, including Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama and Fukuoka, are preparing to file group lawsuits by March.

According to lawyers in Tokyo, there will be about 500 plaintiffs nationwide.