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Food Policy 45 (2014) 167–173

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Food Policy
journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/foodpol

Social imaginary and dilemmas of policy practice: The food safety arena
in Japan
Tomiko Yamaguchi ⇑
Department of Sociology and Anthropology, International Christian University, 3-10-2 Osawa, Mitaka, Tokyo 181-8585, Japan

a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t

Keywords: Through the string of food safety scares that has rocked Japanese society since the early 2000s, conflicts
Food safety between the traditional notion of socially acceptable risk and the idea of a science-based risk analysis
Public policy discourse approach have surfaced in the food safety arena. Elites, including government officials and those mem-
Social imaginary
bers of scientific communities who support the science-based risk analysis approach, have become
responsible for communicating seemingly contradictory ideas such as ‘‘food in Japan is safe’’ and ‘‘there
is no such thing as zero risk with food.’’ This communication logjam has resulted in confusion and created
public distrust of both government and scientific experts. Against this backdrop, this paper aims to exam-
ine the struggles and challenges faced by government officials in explaining and practicing policies that
pertain to highly controversial food safety issues. The primary data used for illuminating the discourses is
the official minutes of governmental committees including the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Com-
mittee and the Consumer Commission.
Ó 2013 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Introduction entitled ‘‘Gaps between reality and perception of risk’’ (Yomiuri,

2011), some consumers are avoiding the purchase of farm products
Through the string of food safety scares that has rocked Japanese from Fukushima and the northern Kanto Region, including Ibaraki,
society since the early 2000s, conflicts between those who empha- Tochigi, Gunma and Saitama Prefectures, due to concern over radi-
size traditional notions of socially acceptable risk and those who ation deposits, again despite government assurances. While many
support a science-based risk analysis approach have surfaced in consumers have expressed their opinions through consumption
the food safety arena. Elites, including government officials and patterns, others have petitioned and lobbied for food safety reform
those members of the scientific community who support the sci- (Stolle et al. 2005). All of these phenomena attest to the fact that is-
ence-based risk analysis approach, have become responsible for sues related to food safety have become topics of concern and con-
communicating such seemingly contradictory ideas as ‘‘food in Ja- troversy (Blue 2010).
pan is safe’’ and ‘‘there is no such thing as zero risk with food.’’ Having adopted a risk analysis approach to food safety regula-
Not surprisingly, they seem to encounter difficulty in determining tion since the early 2000s – an approach that utilizes science-based
how to communicate these ideas. This difficulty has resulted in con- analysis and policy instruments designed to achieve sound and con-
fusion, created distrust in the government and scientific experts, sistent solutions to food safety issues (FAO/WHO, 2006) – the Japa-
and generated a public sentiment that it is not wise to leave food nese government wishes to move away from the public policy
safety issues to the government. A notable behavior of consumers discourse that had previously encouraged the perception that ‘‘zero
is to withdraw from products that are suspected of any trace of risk. risk’’ is an attainable goal when it comes to food. However, a widely
For instance, an opinion survey concerning the Japanese govern- shared expectation within Japanese society is that safety efforts will
ment’s decision to lift the ban on imports of US beef after an out- go well beyond absence of evidence of danger; cultural and social
break of mad cow disease was said to be controlled (a summary norms lead to the expectation that the government will strive to as-
report is available at http://www.intage.co.jp/chikara/02_topics/ sure ‘‘zero risk’’ in foods. Thus it is not clear what food safety means.
470/). The survey found that 45.4% out of 809 respondents indicated People assume that there is a mutually shared understanding of
that they would continue to avoid the purchase of US beef even after what ‘‘safe’’ means within the broader society, but even a cursory
the government announcement that it was now deemed safe. A examination quickly makes it clear that there are multiple mean-
more recent example is the fact that, as indicated in a news report ings assigned to the idea of ‘‘safe’’ food. For instance, some people
seem to understand that for food to be safe means that artificial
⇑ Tel./fax: +81 422 33 3716. substances such as biological and chemical contaminants are zero,
E-mail address: tyamaguc@icu.ac.jp
while others interpret safety in terms equivalent to scientific

0306-9192/$ - see front matter Ó 2013 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
168 T. Yamaguchi / Food Policy 45 (2014) 167–173

criteria such as de minimis – most commonly defined as a risk level hidden social processes that exist in scientific knowledge-making
equivalent to one additional cancer case per one million exposed by focusing on a discursive space observed within scientific com-
individuals (Williams and Paustenbach, 2002) – or assume the no- munities, in which scientists are the primary participants in the
tion of safety to be much broader in definition, using a ‘‘balancing arena (Fujimura, 1988; Christensen and Casper, 2000), while others
principle’’ whereby socioeconomic consequences and other factors have examined conflicts over technical and scientific matters with-
are compared with health consequences (FAO, 1997). In other in the wider society in which various types of stakeholders such as
words, while ‘‘safe food’’ is what is envisioned and expected within scientists, people from industry, consumers and policy-makers
society and is also a legitimate goal of food policy, it is not clear take part (Clarke, 1990; Clarke and Montini, 1993).
which version of safety is to be used as the basis of food policy. The present paper focuses on the latter, shedding light on a
As will be explained more fully below, social norms in Japanese space that lies at the intersection of science and society – in other
society predispose consumers to equate food safety with zero risk. words, an arena in which a variety of stakeholders are involved.
This makes it hard for the government to find a way to convincingly Although I have distinguished between two types of studies with
communicate to the public that food in Japan is safe while at the the aim of demonstrating where the present paper is situated con-
same time communicating the fact that the risk analysis approach ceptually, these are not mutually exclusive and distinct categories.
does not assume that risk is zero. These tensions have become a tre- We can think of a situation in which experts with various affilia-
mendous challenge for the government in communicating its cur- tions, disciplinary backgrounds, perspectives and ideologies partic-
rent food safety policies to the public and in putting them into ipate in the controversies taking place within the wider society or
practice. in which different factions of the public use experts to advance
Against this backdrop, this paper aims to examine the struggles their agendas, in which case the boundaries between these two
and challenges faced by government officials in explaining policies bodies of literature become blurred. For example, ongoing conflicts
that pertain to highly controversial food safety issues. It also iden- and debates in Japan about the regulation of radioactivity depos-
tifies the challenges that such a disjunction imposes on the govern- ited or present in food illustrate the issues that can arise when sci-
ment in putting food safety policies into practice. The primary data entists play an active role in social conflicts or when citizen groups
used for illuminating the discourses is the official minutes of gov- use experts to advance their agendas. Under these circumstances,
ernmental committees including the Agriculture, Forestry and what Gieryn (1983) calls boundary-work occurs, in which another
Fisheries Committee (AFFC), available through the database Min- layer of problems arises. These problems are not only scientific and
utes of National Assembly Search System, which contains the min- technical, such as how we consider health risks arising from sub-
utes of all the national assembly and government standing stances such as radioactive nuclide deposits in food, but also social
committees held since May 1947 and the minutes of the Consumer – such questions as which experts are making legitimate claims
Commission, available through the Consumer Affairs Agency web- and whose science is correct (Brewer and Ley, 2012). The notion
site. The database Kokkai Kaigiroku Kensaku System (Minutes of Na- of boundary-work suggests that an issue enters into the social do-
tional Assembly Search System) contains the minutes of all the na- main when scientists take sides on an issue that is polarized and
tional assembly and the government standing committees held when the roles, responsibilities and authority of experts within
since May 1947. As of June 2011, the database contained 1.53 mil- an arena become controversial or unclear.
lion pages of minutes.
Participant observation was also made at workshops and semi- Food safety arena
nars featuring food safety and public policy discussion, so as to
gain insights for the analysis. Discussions that took place in the When it comes to an arena that involves both scientific assess-
governmental committees are relevant for exploring these ques- ment of risk and policy decisions to determine appropriate safety
tions because the participants are central players in the formula- standards in particular, the contour of the arena is determined
tion of policy (for example, the Minister of the AFFC), and not only by the ability and/or resources of individuals and organiza-
because they are aware that all minutes of meetings will be made tions to influence the process and outcome of conflicts, but also by
available to the public and that their statements are likely to be structural constraints that set the goals of policy agendas (Renn,
scrutinized; thus in their choice of words they are likely to take 1992). Renn (1992) identifies public policy agendas as a combina-
into account their beliefs about public perceptions. The paper will tion of formal rules, coded and monitored by a rule enforcement
first lay out the analytical framework, then provide an analysis of agency, and informal rules, such as the political climate of group
discourse in the food safety arena. A particular focus of this paper interactions and role expectations, learned and developed in the
is to understand whether and in what ways government officials process of interactions among participating groups. The public pol-
engage with social expectations, given the framework of laws icies set forth and the rules stipulated within the Food Safety Basic
and institutions that currently govern food safety in Japan. The Act enacted in 2003, for instance, influence the way in which dis-
challenges created through the tensions between these different cursive battles play out in the food safety arena in Japan, but at
forces are discussed in the conclusion. the same time, wishing to influence policy processes and outcomes,
government officials may consider social expectations as suggested
by risk arena theory. Indeed, one study suggests that when there is
Analytical framework no conclusive evidence to determine which policy option is most
likely to work best, policy makers operate according to a logic of so-
Social arena cial appropriateness (Rein and Winship, 1997). In some cases, nor-
mative ideas could be so influential that they could override the
A social arena is a symbolic space in which concerned parties interests of policy makers (Quirk, 1990). These forces can facilitate
engage in interactions intended to influence collective decisions or limit the influences that participating groups have over the
or policy outcomes. Building on the idea of a social arena as a dis- determination of public policy. Such enabling or limiting forces
cursive space in which people from varying social worlds meet and may generate an outcome that is incompatible with the values
interact (Strauss, 1978; Hilgartner and Bosk, 1988; Wiener, 2000), and goals of participating groups and even at odds with the factual
this paper looks at the discourse of an arena in which conflicts over evidence that the groups bring to bear on the debate. Factors such
concerns about food safety take place. Using the notion of arena as as social appropriateness and normative ideas can thus create enor-
an analytical lens, some studies have uncovered the somewhat mous difficulties in the formulation and implementation of
T. Yamaguchi / Food Policy 45 (2014) 167–173 169

science-based policies and may sometimes exacerbate tensions Millstone and Van Zwanenberg, 2007 among others.) Since then, the
within and among the participating groups. Japanese government has begun reorganizing the regulatory mech-
As described above, risk arena theory provides a useful analyt- anisms by revising laws, enacting new laws and re-arranging the
ical lens to understand science and societal relations in studying institutions governing food safety. For instance, a revision was made
food policies; however the theory focuses mainly on debates over to the Food Sanitation Act, which previously was the only law
risk, and the sociocultural and political dynamics therein. Thus addressing food safety issues; the purpose of the law was revised
many other issues hinging on ‘‘safety’’ are unaddressed, such as to explicitly stipulate that the law is to protect the health of consum-
processes and consequences of decision-making in determining ers, an aspect which had not been explicitly stated previously. Par-
the meaning of safe or unsafe, or the practice of ‘‘safety’’ (Lederer, allel to the revision of the Food Sanitation Act, a new law, the Food
2011). In contrast, the existing literature on food safety examines Safety Basic Act (hereafter described as the Act), was enacted in
either scientific and technical issues or the economics involved in 2003. Prescribing the model of the Codex Alimentarius Commission
food safety policies (Henson and Caswell, 1999), but omits the is- (hereafter described as Codex; text is available at www.codexali-
sues that lie at the intersection of science and society. In order to mentarium.net/procedural_manual.stm), this new Act is an attempt
fill in these gaps, this paper argues that examining the discourse to shift gears in the food safety governance of Japan by bringing in
created by governmental officials will enrich our understanding new ideas and renewed institutional arrangements according to a
of the challenges of practicing science-based public policies in a statement made by the President of the Science Council of Japan at
society in which the pursuit of the ideal of zero is seen as norma- a public forum called ‘‘Shoku no Anzen to Anshin o Mezashite (Pur-
tive and as an integral component of the mutual expression of re- suing the dual goal of science-based food safety and socially ac-
spect and cooperation. In order to better capture the tensions that cepted food safety)’’ held in October 2003. The purpose of the Act
arise in the food safety arena, the paper will bring in the notion of is to move away from a ‘‘traditional food safety system’’ to a ‘‘mod-
‘‘social imaginaries’’ (Taylor, 2004). A social imaginary encom- ern food safety system’’ using primarily the model suggested by the
passes aspects of the social world which go beyond the traditional Codex (Fig. 1). Among several characteristics described by the Co-
definition of an arena: it includes the symbolic dimensions of social dex, the Act emphasizes the following three things: (1) devising pol-
life – the ways in which people conceive of their society and the icies that will assure food safety at all stages of the food chain
roles, rules and expectations that govern it. Social imaginaries pro- (Article 4); (2) a shift to a science-based risk analysis approach (Arti-
vide a basis for social order and also function as important bases of cle 11); and (3)stipulating the responsibilities and roles of con-
public policy, even with respect to areas in which we might expect cerned parties, namely the national government (Articles 6), local
thought and discussion to be firmly grounded in seemingly objec- governments (Article 7), food businesses and industries (Article 8),
tive fact, such as scientific and technical agendas. As Jasanoff and and consumers (Article 10), with the aim of sharing responsibilities.
Kim (2009:120) have forcefully argued, imaginaries and the poli- Along with these changes, the government became responsible for
cies built upon them influence ‘‘the design and fulfillment of na- disseminating information and exchanging ideas among the parties
tion-specific scientific and/or technological projects’’ and thus concerned, in accordance with Article 13 of the Act. Article 13 of the
come to influence the objective conditions of our society. Building Act elaborates on the risk communication activities to be carried out
on the concept of ‘‘sociotechnical imaginaries,’’ the key argument among stakeholders when public policy decisions are to be made.
of this paper is that the ideal of ‘safety’ functions not only as an ab- The parties concerned include consumers, people in food industry
stract vision of society that shapes or even warps debate but that it and businesses, FSC, MAFF, MHLW and local governments. Risk
can also function as a key element in designing and practicing food communication activities include such activities as organizing pub-
policies. Additionally, the status of ‘zero’ as a socio-cultural con- lic fora, seeking public comments during the drafting stages of pub-
struct and as an integral part of a social imaginary must be taken lic policy, organizing information sessions on the results of scientific
into account in order to understand certain facets of the food safety risk assessment, (Shokuhin Anzen KihonSeisaku Kenkyukai, 2005).
arena. The Act stipulates that a risk analysis approach consists of three
components: risk assessment, risk management and risk commu-
nication. The Act envisions that these three components will make
Food safety arena in Japan
it possible to respond to food safety problems in a systematic,
structured and scientific way, thus also improving the quality of
The food safety arena in contemporary Japan can be character-
decision-making throughout the food chain. The Food Safety Com-
ized in terms of the introduction of a risk-analysis approach to food
mission (FSC), a newly established institution created under one
policies within the context of a social imaginary best captured
provision of the Act, was mandated to carry out scientific risk
through the Japanese term anzen-anshin. This section describes
assessment, while other government ministries including the Min-
these two key elements in turn.
istry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fishery (MAFF) and the Ministry
of Health, Labor and Welfare (MHLW) were given the tasks of risk
Risk analysis approach management; their expected role is to facilitate the process of
building consensus among interested parties, while using the sci-
Among several formal rules that influence the framing of policy entific advice of the FSC and also considering the social and eco-
statements in Japan, the Food Safety Act plays a significant role. Here nomic needs of society.
I will briefly elaborate on the process by which the Act came about
and the framework that the Act sets forth in the food risk arena in Imagined food safety: anzen-anshin
Japan. The BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) outbreak in
2001, the most prominent food scare in Japan, brought issues con- In contrast to the bold new vision of a scientific risk assessment
cerning food safety to the center stage of the food policy agendas and management approach put forth by the Act, Japanese society
(Fox and Peterson, 2004; Kamisato, 2005; Sato, 2010). (Needless to has a long-standing social imaginary of food safety, summed up
say, the BSE outbreak was also a prominent food scare in Europe, in the expression anzen-anshin. Analysis of policy deliberations
the US and Canada. The issues involved have been studied exten- suggests that the paired terms anzen-anshin are routinely used
sively from various disciplinary perspectives. Papers that focus on to describe two important, socially legitimate and widely accepted
the themes of risk communication, risk management and public pol- ways of dealing with matters related to safety. The terms inher-
icies include Caskie et al., 1998, Jasanoff, 1997, Kuzma and Ahl, 2006, ently embody a certain ambiguity because, while they can be
170 T. Yamaguchi / Food Policy 45 (2014) 167–173

Fig. 1. Food safety system.

pressed into service to describe the science-based risk analysis Table 1

model, they traditionally convey a set of social expectations and Frequency of usage of terms, by decade.
an imaginary of Japanese society that goes beyond the risk-analysis
Anzen-anshin Zettai anzen
model. To put it simply, anzen refers to scientifically proven safety,
while the dictionary translation of anshin is ‘‘relief from anxiety’’; 1950 0 66
1960 0 98
in the context of the cases that the present study deals with, it 1970 2 182
can be more accurately translated as ‘‘socially accepted safety.’’ 1980 3 86
Underlying this thinking is the belief that assuring anzen is the 1990 80 74
absolute minimum requirement, and that assuring anshin is also 2000 1651 66
required when foods are put on the market. In other words, anshin Total 1736 572
describes the responsibility on the part of the entity who devel-
oped the products or who permits the products to be on the market
to proactively assure safety and to protect the public health and re- statements intended to promote it as a goal. While the loan-phrase
frain from harming the environment. This is an extra measure of ‘‘zero risuku’’ was not previously established as acommon way of
responsibility that goes beyond merely running required tests or describing the goal of absolute safety, the established and nuanced
meeting a certain minimum standard; it suggests that a company phrase anzen-anshin clearly implies proactively seeking to assure
or industry goes ‘‘the extra mile’’ and actively seeks to ensure that zero risk, as we will see in statements drawn from government pol-
the public has no cause for concern. There appears to be no exact icy meetings.
translation for this expression in English, and there is no obvious While it does indicate safety in scientific terms, the term anzen-
corollary to this concept in Western culture or discourse. anshin goes further to evoke an expectation that all measures will
To elaborate on the contours of public policy discourse and also be taken proactively to ensure absence of risk. The role of the soci-
demonstrate the centrality of the notion, a search for the term an- etal norm captured in the expression anzen-anshin has been explic-
zen-anshin has been done in the database of Minutes of the Na- itly invoked to push for the pursuit of the ideal of zero risk. For
tional Assembly, which yielded 1736 statements. Breakdown of example, at a government hearing held on May 8, 2003 on the Food
these statements into six different periods demonstrates that the Safety Basic Act, an academician who was invited to a session of the
usage of this phrase has become more frequent since 2000. While Cabinet Committee as a witness pointed out the importance of
between the years 1950–1959 and 1960–1969, the search yielded respecting the public sentiment in food policies. He commented,
0 statements, a gradual increase is observed between 1970–1979 ‘‘the public and consumers have a strong desire to attain the goal
(2 statements) and 1980–1989 (3 statements); a dramatic increase of perfect safety. I totally understand the sentiment of pursuing
is experienced between 1990–1999 (80 statements) and 2000– zero risk. . . Stating that there is no such thing as zero risk seems
2009 (1651 statements). A search for the word zettai-anzen (‘‘abso- to be too cold a statement. With respect to attaining anzen-anshin,
lute safety,’’ implying zero risk) also yielded a substantive number the public would seek zero risk. In my opinion, the government
of statements, but these showed the opposite tendency in terms of ought to understand these sentiments. . .’’ He thus explicitly states
the frequency of usage in public policy statements. The number of the connection between anzen-anshin and zero risk, in words that
statements has gone down since the1970s (Table 1). These broader imply that this connection is obvious to his audience and does
changes provide some insight into how the statements made by not require proof; the issue to his mind is the duty of the govern-
policy makers have shifted away from a term that clearly and ment to respect the well-known sentiments of the public.
unambiguously indicates zero risk to a term that will be widely In the context of Japanese society, this expectation has meant,
understood to communicate essentially the same idea and yet re- for example, that even if a scientific risk evaluation has been com-
mains more open to interpretation. Finally, a search was performed pleted by an expert committee such as the Food Safety Commis-
for the English phrase ‘‘zero risk’’ in the form in which it has been sion, in other words a scientific basis of safety has been
adopted into Japanese (‘‘zero risuku’’), but yielded only 32 state- established in accordance with the then available scientific knowl-
ments. The breakdown of the 32 statements is as follows: one edge, it has frequently been the case that the safety of a product is
statement for the 1970s, zero for the 1980s, one for the 1990s, nevertheless subjected to further scrutiny. For instance, a repre-
and 30 for the 2000s. The term frequently began to appear in the sentative of a consumer interest group, speaking at the January 6,
discourse only during the last decade and is used primarily in 2012 session of the Committee on Food Labeling of the Consumer
the context of criticism of the goal of zero risk, rather than in Commission, acknowledged that a scientific risk evaluation on
T. Yamaguchi / Food Policy 45 (2014) 167–173 171

GMO foods had been completed by the FSC, but nevertheless ar- discrepancy between the standard of anzen-anshin and the de-
gued that not all safety concerns had been allayed. This speaker mands of a science-based risk analysis approach.
did not cite evidence of toxicity or danger, but rather spoke of
the need to proactively examine the possibility of toxicity before Struggles to go against social imaginaries
coming to any conclusions. She commented, ‘‘I am aware that a
[scientific] risk evaluation has already been completed. . .but I Even though the Japanese expectation of anzen-anshin predis-
came across some studies. . .which suggest safety concerns,’’ and poses the public to expect that zero risk will be the goal, the gov-
argued that further studies needed to be done before any conclu- ernment was forced to take a new stance on food safety
sions could be reached. (The minutes of the session are available governance after the outbreak of BSE in Japan. The tone of the dis-
(in Japanese) at http://www.cao.go.jp/consumer/history/01/ course in the public policy arena in Japan has changed since then.
kabusoshiki/syokuhinhyouji/bukai/001/shiryou/index.html). Prior to the outbreak, the idea of the zero risk principle was unhes-
It should be noted that at the time this comment was made, the itatingly used in policy deliberations. After the outbreaks, the gov-
government had introduced a science-based risk analysis frame- ernment became more reserved in using the term. Comparison of
work to food safety regulation. When voices are raised like that the following two statements demonstrates how the tone of the
in the governmental committee, the voices asking for the pursuit discourse changed. The latter especially demonstrates how the
of zero risk will generally be treated as representing a legitimate government is trying to persuade citizens to accept reasonable lim-
perspective and will not easily be dismissed as expressing un- itations on food safety and to clarify the roles and responsibilities
founded worries. of relevant government units based on a new model.
In some cases, pursuit of anshin will override decisions based on At the AFFC meeting held on October 17, 1989, the Director of
scientific knowledge. For instance, immediately after the BSE out- the Economic Bureau, MAFF responded to a question raised by a
break the Japanese government introduced a policy to screen all parliamentary member. It should be noted that when high-ranking
the cattle imported to Japan so as to assure that the cattle affected government officials are invited to governmental committees to
by BSE will not get into Japanese food chains – in the name of pro- respond to questions raised by parliament members, the com-
viding anshin to the people. At the time the decision was made, the ments generally reflect the dominant ideas of the organization s/
then-Minister of MAFF at the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries he is representing. The content of the comments is reviewed by
Committee said, ‘‘Even though the data from the UK suggest to the relevant parties and approved prior to the actual appearance
us that 99.95% of the cattle affected by prions are 30 months or of the spokesperson at the Committee; therefore what has been
older, to me this suggests that there is a chance that 0.05% of cattle said at these committees both reflects the key ideas of the minis-
infected by prions are below 30 months.’’ This statement is in tries and also influences the ways in which policies are designed
keeping with the norms of anzen-anshin: focusing on the smallest and practiced (Nishio, 2012). The question posed in this case was
element of risk rather than declare that risk has been lowered to what would be the basis of decisions related to risks of agricultural
an acceptable level.The Minister explicitly noted the importance crops and food. The Director of the Economic Bureau asserted that
of anshin as he continued, ‘‘Thus we will introduce blanket screen- the government supports the ideal of zero risk.
ing, stricter than the EU standards, in fact the most strict standard
in the world, [because] it is important to provide anshin to the pub- . . .I think there is a conflict between those countries who sup-
lic’’. (AFFC held on October 17, 2001). The screening program has port the zero risk principle and those who believe that aiming
continued to be carried out to date by all the local governments, to achieve zero risk is not practical. We, in Japan, consider that
even though the recommendation made by the FSC suggested that strict standards, which utilize the zero risk principle, are
there is no use in carrying out screening of cattle at the age of important.
20 months or below, because available scientific methods cannot Minutes from the session held on October 17, 1989.
detect prions at those ages (Karaki, 2010). Indeed, in response to Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Committee.
a questionnaire distributed in 2009 by Shoku no Shinrai Koujyo After the outbreak of BSE, the tone of the public statements by
wo Mezasu Kai (2009) (The Association for Improving Trust in government changed, de-emphasizing the idea of the zero risk
Food), designed to examine the reasons that the local govern- principle and acknowledging the existence of risks and uncertain-
mentscontinue the blanket screening to date, 35 out of 44 local ties. These shifts coincided with the government’s emphasis on the
governments chose the response category ‘‘because we believe importance of utilizing inputs from scientific experts when devis-
that blanket screening is what the public expects us to do’’, while ing public policies. Using scientific expertise in policy-making her-
only three local governments chose the response category ‘‘be- alds a new system that differentiates between scientific matters
cause the program is important to assure safety’’. In fact, the and socio-economic matters when making public policy decisions
blanket screening program, whose primary purpose appears to – namely risk assessment, risk management and risk communica-
be allaying the presumed worries of consumers, has required tre- tion. These three concepts began to emerge in the discourse fre-
mendous expenditure on the part of the local governments quently. However, public discourse on the new policy direction
– total expenses are said to be approximately 20 billion yen or shows a certain ambivalence.
more (approximately 200 million US dollars) over the last A clear illustration of the ambivalence is a statement by Tsu-
decade (according to the source J-Cast News January 8th, tomu Takebe, Minister of Agriculture, in a session of AFFC on March
2012. Downloaded from http://www.j-cast.com/2012/01/ 19, 2002. After noting that ‘‘the US and the European countries
08118116.html?p=all). have already introduced the risk management approach – the idea
In other instances, the system introduced for providing anshin of risk analysis and risk management – in order to minimize health
has been criticized for its inability to establish scientific safety. risks derived from food,’’ he then asserted that:
The government established ‘‘food traceability systems’’ that al-
lows consumers to access produce and product information at . . .We can no longer afford the goal of zero risk. . .food safety
specified stages of production, processing and distribution (FMRIC, policies in Japan need to introduce a risk management approach
2007) in order to provide anshin to the consumers, but the criticism utilizing scientific data. . .Further, I would like to note that we
has been made that the system only logs information about prod- have not used scientific expertise fully in the past so we now
ucts and is not a guarantee of zero risk (Mikami, 2007). These phe- ought to figure out the roles of experts within our policy-
nomena illustrate some of the difficulties engendered by the making.
172 T. Yamaguchi / Food Policy 45 (2014) 167–173

Tsutomu Takebe, Minister of Agriculture. much information about the risk analysis approach is being dis-
Minutes from the session held March 19, 2002. seminated throughout various governmental institutions.
Although the risk analysis approach in fact represents a significant
In this series of statements we see an acknowledgment that re-thinking of priorities vis-à-vis the traditional model, this fact is
zero risk has previously been accepted as a de facto goal in, not being effectively communicated to the public. The incomplete
whether or not it has been explicitly formulated as such in written shift between the two models is not only a matter of inconsistent
policy. The explicit statement that zero risk is no longer an attain- messaging; it has demonstrable concrete manifestations in the
able goal also clearly indicates the message that the government implementation of policy. For example, in the case of the BSE test-
wants to convey to the public; however, in the following state- ing program, the national government has in fact withdrawn fund-
ment, concerning the role of scientific experts, we see an indication ing for blanket screening but the local governments continue to
that the government nevertheless wants to be culturally and so- carry out the program, at great expense, in the name of satisfying
cially appropriate. The ideal of anzen-anshin includes the expecta- public expectations. The discrepancy between the direction of offi-
tion that those responsible for the safety of food will go ‘‘above and cial food safety policy and the pressures created by the social imag-
beyond’’ to ensure that consumers have no reason to be concerned. inary of food safety could hardly be more stark.
Although the risk management approach shifts some responsibility
onto the public – thus apportioning responsibility in a very differ-
ent way than the social imaginary evoked by anzen-anshin – the Conclusions
Minister’s statement immediately emphasizes the expanded role
of experts – scientists. Thus even as the statement attempts to con- This paper has argued that the concept of a social imaginary
vey that the public cannot expect the authorities to uphold the combined with an arena theory helps us to understand some of
zero-risk ideal, it also attempts to reassure the public by highlight- the challenges we face in contemporary agrifood governance. The
ing the greater involvement of experts. As a result of these different analytical framework presented in this paper enables us to gain in-
goals, the key message gets blurred and the statement is open to a sights into phenomena which have previously gone unnoticed. The
variety of interpretations with respect to how, exactly, the govern- social imaginary in which Japanese people are accustomed to think
ment is going to practice science-based safety standards. of food safety has an expectation of zero risk and a specific assign-
The statement above is only one of a number of statements that ment of responsibilities – the government and/or industry are
demonstrate that the government is having difficulty figuring out responsible for proactively ensuring that things are safe. The risk
how it can communicate the new risk approaches while making analysis approach apportions some responsibilities to consumers,
those approaches palatable to the public by showing respect to but this idea, as well as the idea that perfect safety cannot be
norms and cultural values. In a statement three weeks later (April achieved, does not accord with the Japanese public’s idea of com-
3, 2002), the Minister of Agriculture explicitly noted the paradigm mon sense. The Japanese government is attempting to communi-
shift underway as he commented, ‘‘Even though the goal of zero risk cate these new ideas but is also trying to couch things in socially
is unattainable, we should have had a risk management manual and culturally accepted terms such as anzen-anshin, thus express-
ready. . .to deal with the BSE issues. . .’’ He then alluded to part of ing a new model in the terms of the old one, with the result that
what the paradigm shift entails by making the somewhat ambigu- the message is unclear. At the same time, while the government
ous statement, ‘‘We are determined to shift from an emphasis on now recognizes that the ideal of zero risk is unachievable, that
producer-oriented food policy to policies that are consumer ori- ideal continues to create difficulties, not only at the level of policy
ented.’’ Recall that the scientific risk-analysis approach represents statements but in the actual carrying out of policy, as evidenced by
a significant break with societal expectations in that it shifts some the blanket screening for BSE being carried out in Japan and the
responsibility from producers to consumers. The Minister’s state- discordance between national and local policy in that regard. These
ment is however unclear as to whether he means to say that con- phenomena indicate that Japan faces concrete trouble in the imple-
sumers will be more empowered or that they will be given more mentation of public policy, brought about by the shift in agrifood
responsibility – or some combination of the two. He immediately governance.
added, ‘‘I also add that we are aiming to establish a food system that The case study for this paper portrays an important social dy-
will provide food both anzen-anshin.’’ In short, the Minister’s state- namic that has implications beyond the specific situation in Japan.
ments here are a clear illustration of the mixed messaging that the As we have seen, the idea of zero risk can function not merely as
government is giving in its efforts to carry out a significant policy one point on a scale of risk – the extreme end – but as a part of
change while showing respect for established societal expectations. a social imaginary with its own set of expectations and assumed
An additional source of ambiguity is the fact that the definition responsibilities and social roles. Once a social imaginary that incor-
of socially accepted safety is not explicitly fixed, so that the idiom porates the ideal of zero risk is established, if and when a new pol-
can potentially be stretched to encompass different meanings. It is icy must be introduced, we may find that the shift between models
clear that for many, perhaps the majority of Japanese society, the is neither straightforward nor automatic. We may find, as in the
idiom anzen-anshin indicates very similar ideals to zero risk. For in- case of Japan, public agencies issuing unclear communications, lack
stance, in a newspaper article entitled ‘‘Provision of anshin, multi- of clarity about responsibilities, and even a certain amount of
ple [food safety] criteria, public’s perception and in search of chaos in implementation as different agencies or levels of govern-
appropriate standards’’ (Asahi, 2012), the manager of the risk man- ment attempt to operate within the different models and meet
agement unit of a national supermarket chain pointed out, ‘‘For a very different sets of expectations. In particular, the no-win sce-
retailer like us, winning the trust of the public means making ef- nario confronting public agencies in Japan points out a general
forts to obtain the goal of zero risk in food in our stores’’. Japanese danger inherent in the adoption of an ideal such as zero risk. Once
culture is weighted to expect zero risk, and to put the burden on such an expectation of zero risk has become established as part of
those who declare food safe to determine that it is, in fact, com- the social fabric, even if it turns out that the expectation cannot be
pletely safe. Statements by public officials make it clear that the met, no agency will wish to appear irresponsible or lose the trust of
government is aware of these expectations. Meanwhile, there is the public by repudiating the ideal. Thus, attempting to be socially
no indication that the public is aware of a shift in the risk manage- and culturally appropriate can potentially mislead the public, ulti-
ment approach, even though drastic institutional changes and pol- mately resulting in confusion and loss of the public’s trust. While
icy revisions have been made – as evidenced by the fact that so the notion of anzen-anshin is a construct that pertains specifically
T. Yamaguchi / Food Policy 45 (2014) 167–173 173

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