Hopes, fears rising over new food labels in Japan

Hopes, fears rising over new food labels in Japan
New packaging to be used under a new food labeling system at Hakubaku foods.

Staff at the Tokyo office of Hakubaku Co. discussed last month what phrases they should put on new packages of their products, weighing options like "Normalize your cholesterol levels" and "Keep your stomach feeling full." Based in Fujikawa, Yamanashi Prefecture, Hakubaku produces and sells processed barley products.

A new function-oriented food labeling system (See below) began in April for the nutrients in food and the health benefits they bring, allowing companies to assert various benefits on their own responsibility without government tests. The system was launched as part of the nation's growth strategy and easing of regulations.

Hakubaku previously considered using the established tokuho system for labeling food for specific health purposes, in which the government tests the effectiveness and safety of foods and issues certifications to those that make the grade.

However, Hakubaku said it gave up on applying to the tokuho system because there were many hurdles involved, such as required tests on human bodies.

The company applied to the new labeling system by collecting and submitting scientific papers to show evidence of the health benefits of its barley products, which are rich in dietary fiber and have a similar texture to rice.

If Hakubaku's application is accepted, the company will introduce new packaging for products already on the market.

"There were data on the health benefits of barley, but we couldn't write them clearly on the label. We hope to boost our sales," said Yuta Saito, a Hakubaku executive in charge of this project.

The government began accepting applications on April 1, and the number reached 100 by the middle of April. Companies need to submit an application at least 60 days before they begin selling relevant products.

Among the applications is one for green tea produced by Kirin Beverage Co., which the firm says blocks the absorption of fat. Likewise, the JA Mikkabi agricultural cooperative in Hamamatsu was to submit an application for its mandarin oranges, claiming they help keep bones strong.

"I can feel [the companies'] high expectations. Products with new labeling will appear in stores from May 31," said Shunichi Yamaguchi, state minister for consumer affairs.

Under the new system, companies are required to provide scientific evidence. The government said it will accept the results of document research, in which a company gathers research papers from around the world and comprehensively evaluates their data.

The expressions companies are allowed to use on their packaging will differ depending on how they provide such evidence.

When a company tests the health benefits of a product by itself, the company is allowed to print on the package, "This product contains such and such nutrients, and so works to ..."

When it claims health benefits based on scientific papers testing its product, it can say on a package, "this product contains such and such nutrients that reportedly work to ..."

Regarding the credibility of such scientific evidence, the Consumer Affairs Agency will promptly post the content it receives from companies on its website.

"We hope that a wide range of people, including consumers and scientists, will check them," said the agency official in charge.

The agency plans to check product labeling and ingredients by conducting spot inspections and to set up a consultation counter for consumers. In case of problems, the agency said it can carry out on-site inspections and order recalls of the products in question.

However, consumer organisations and others have continued to express concern about the new system.

"The government abandons its responsibility and leaves it to the voluntary actions of each company. That exposes consumers to huge risk," said Makiko Kawamura, president of the Shufuren housewives association based in Tokyo.

The organisation submitted its opinion in writing on April 10, requesting the agency to take such steps as establishing a system to collect information such as health problems caused by items with new labels, and working to prevent people from mistaking items bearing new labels for tokuho items.

"Product labels can claim detailed health benefits under the new system, so consumers need to be cautious about having too high expectations and consuming the products excessively," said Yoriko Tobe, head of Consumer Research Institute of Nippon Association of Consumer Specialists. "We have a wider range of choices now when buying items, but that means we have to make good choices."

Function-oriented food labeling system

Under this new system, companies that provide scientific evidence to the government can use labels that describe products' health benefits for specific parts of the body. The system covers a wide variety of food items, including processed food products, supplements and fresh food.

It is the third food labeling system to be introduced, following the tokuho system for specific health uses that requires government screening, and another system for food that contains nutrients at or above levels stipulated by the government.

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