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This article originally appeared in Archipelago magazine.

E. Coli O157, Food Distribution and the Yakuza -- and Poisoned Children -- a Case of Bacteriological Terrorism?

Synopsis: The E. coli O157 epidemic is a natural byproduct of Japan's food distribution system, which is controlled by bureaucrats, trading companies and agribusiness -- a fourth, silent partner, criminal syndicates, or the yakuza. To understand why Japanese public health officials have failed to stop the spread of the contagion -- and why if became necessary for the Health and Welfare Ministry to launch a media disinformation campaign -- requires a look at how food is distributed in Japan and who does the distributing, pays the bribes and muzzles the law. By Yoichi Clark Shimatsu


O157 Redux: On Sept. 26, the Health and Welfare Ministry led by ''honest reformer'' Naoto Kan, who made his reputation in breaking open the HIV-contaminated blood product scandal but participated in the O157 coverup, reasserted that the stomach bacteria was transmitted in radish sprouts, or kaiware daikon.

But on Oct. 3, the Morioka school district in Iwate Prefecture announced that O157 had poisoned 212 students and teachers there -- and that radish sprouts were NOT on the menu. Subsequently, by mid-October, eight people were reported with O157 infections in Tokyo, five of whom ate beef hearts at a Korean yakiniku restaurant. As this writer knows of many other unreported cases (including his own) among Japanese and foreigners living in Tokyo, the epidemic must be severely underreported across Japan. As for the other charge leveled in this article -- that the yakuza have been poisoning food products to enforce a coverup inside the dairy industry -- the police have arrested in September managers of dairy cooperatives in Sendai, Kobe and Niigata for diluting fresh milk with imported powdered milk. Also, in late summer, the police in Taiwan exposed a smuggling ring that illegally imported powdered milk from the U.S. to adulterate milk sold to Taiwanese. It turns out that the powdered milk was purchased past its expiration date -- making it unfit for human consumption and for use only by the chemical or fertilizer business.

These recent revelations strongly indicate that organized crime groups in East Asia may have been running a lucrative racket involving the importation of stale or contaminated food products -- and perhaps it was through suspect beef imports that O157 entered the food chain in Japan.

Inaction:

The first victim of the current E. coli O157 epidemic was a 13-year-old girl in Itami, a suburb of Kobe, who was hospitalized May 10. She died of kidney failure on the morning of May 13. Later in this article, remember the place: Kobe, which is not only the center of Japan's beef production but also the chief port of entry for food imports. But officially, according to Japan's Health and Welfare Ministry, the first victim was a female first-grader in Oku, Okayama Prefecture, who died June 1. Presumably, pushing back the date of the first case would be better for the ministry, since a national emergency was not declared by the Hashimoto Cabinet until 54 days later, on July 25.

If the Kobe case is taken as the starting point of the O157 epidemic, the interval before the declaration of emergency would be stretched to 72 days, more than 10 weeks. By contrast, U.S. public health officials in Seattle, Wash., where some 500 people were infected by Jack in the Box hamburgers and four children died in 1994, called an alert within FIVE DAYS. On Aug. 6 -- eight more deaths and nearly three months after the girl in Kobe died -- the Japanese health ministry declared the O157 outbreak an epidemic. Why did it take so long?

Disinformation:

On Thursday, August 8, Osaka prefecture officials determined the cause of the O157 outbreak that killed two elementary school girls in Sakai and a factory worker in Kyoto: radish sprouts. Prefecture officials seized Styrofoam cases of sprouts at the Minamino Noen facility in Habikino -- as TV cameras and reporters thronged to the scene of the raid. On that evening's TV news, Health Minister Naoto Kan announced that radish sprouts (kaiware daikon) had caused the outbreak.

In the print media, the news broke Friday, Aug. 9. The morning editions of Japanese newspapers, including the English-language versions, also happened to carry on their front pages paid advertising, placed by the Health and Welfare Ministry. The ads urged people to wash their hands, heat food thoroughly, wash cooking utensils carefully, and handle food with ''sanitary precautions.''

But these steps cannot stop the spread of O157, which can survive inside freezers, multiply inside refrigerated meat lockers at temperatures of 4 degrees C and in some cases survive pasteurization. The advice in the health ministry ads were, therefore, spurious in terms of science and merely meant to reassure the public -- and put money in the hands of newspaper publishers.

At a Friday afternoon press conference, after meeting with ministry officials, the head of the kaiware daikon growers' association denounced the Health Ministry's media campaign as being ''politically motivated.'' The water and samples of radish sprouts at the suspected facility in Osaka Prefecture had tested negative. No organic fertilizers are used in its production.

The Health Ministry tests on radish sprouts, the water inside sprout growers' facilities and surrounding rivers all turned out to prove negative. It turned out that radish sprouts were suspected only because several food-service sites in Sakai had obtained three food substances -- milk, bread and sprouts -- from the same sources. Parents' groups and growers, however, pointed out that other consumers of daikon sprouts did not come down with the disease -- so the sprouts could not have been contaminated.

On the same day, hospital officials in Chiba Prefecture announced that a 1-year-old baby girl had died of O157 poisoning. Her parents were not carriers; the household refrigerator had not contained any contaminated food; and it seems odd to feed such a young child radishes.

As supermarkets cleared their shelves of radish sprouts, the kaiware daikon growers, later that day, announced that they would file a lawsuit against the Health Ministry for several million dollars in damages. This is a small amount compared to other food products, and it can be assumed that government officials blamed radish sprouts because of their insignificance in the overall economy.

On Aug. 16, one week after the Health Ministry ad campaign, minister Naoto Kan appeared before TV cameras at a news conference and ate three boxes of daikon sprouts. The ministry did not admit its mistake, because to do so would mean it would have to pay damages to the kaiware daikon industry, which has been losing $1 million per day.

The Health Ministry had to back down, because laboratory testing at the Agriculture Ministry was providing conclusive evidence that daikon sprouts are super-immune to O157 infection. On Friday, Aug. 23, farm officials disclosed the test results.

In the Agriculture ministry tests, done at the National Food Institute in Tsukuba, sprouts were placed for 15 hours in water that contained 8.2 million bacilli per cubic centimeter. Only 10,000 bacteria are needed for testing purposes -- and that is more than enough to cause illness among several people. The sprouts were then cut 3 cm above the root tips and proved negative. The fact that there was not even any creep along the surface of stems indicates that, contrary to Health Ministry findings, not only are daikon sprouts resistant to infection -- they may even repel the O157 bacteria.

But the Health Ministry's gross error could not have been a matter of simple ignorance. The facts about O157 has long been known by the WHO and the head of the World Health Organization, after all, is Japanese. What has not been mentioned by the ministry is the primary source of all 0157 contamination is beef, especially hamburger and intestinal meat, or cow manure.

Radish sprouts, when served to children, they usually appear, like parsley, as a condiment for a dish known as ''niku-jagaimo,'' a stew made out of boiled potatoes and hamburger meat. The children in Sakai also were served sausages, which are often undercooked because they are distributed frozen. The advertising campaign, the health official announcements and the media news stories linking O157 to radish sprouts were a classic example of a disinformation campaign. Whose interests are the health officials, the Hashimoto Cabinet and the mass media protecting?

Herd Instinct:

The Japanese media, especially the English-language media, pushed the idiot's tale of radish sprouts. But the Sankei Shimbun took an early lead in disputing the official coverup, with articles in mid-July that linked O157 to dairy cow products, especially hamburger meat. Other articles in Friday, Gendai, Healthy and Natural, The Economist and Time magazines have pointed to beef, or cow manure in the intestines, as the original source of O157. (The original host of the O157 bacteria is the intestinal tract of dairy cows.) Indeed, the Sankei reported Aug. 11 that the DNA pattern of the O157 in the massive Sakai case is identical to a sample sent from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control taken from an earlier meat contamination case in the United States.

According to the Journal of the American Medical Association (April 5, 1995, pp. 985-6), an unpublished report by the Centers for Disease Control estimates O157 causes a minimal 20,000 cases and 250-500 deaths a year in the United States alone, and the numbers appear to be increasing. Consumer groups have pressured President Clinton to sign a bill upgrading meat inspection laws. The new regulations are not fail safe, because even the inventor of the DNA meat inspection system admits that no existing technology can catch all the contamination in beef carcasses.

Rather than belabor the point, which is discussed elsewhere by this author, an abundance of information in the United States and Canada correlates E. coli O157 with dairy cows.

So why hasn't Japan's Health and Welfare Ministry informed the public about the risks of beef?

Since before the July 25 Cabinet meeting, the Agriculture Ministry began testing Japanese beef and dairy herds and meatpacking houses for O157. JA, the Japanese farmers' union, and meat packers have apparently been cooperative and eager to resolve the problem as rapidly as possible, because consumers have already gotten information on their own and meat consumption has declined.

JA, one of Japan's biggest lobbies, and meat packers, who belong a socially sensitive groups -- the burakumin, a former underclass, and Koreans -- have not used their lobbying power against the Liberal Democratic government, so what is behind the official reluctance to raise the beef issue?

Food Tampering:

Education Ministry Bureaucrats and the Yakuza: In mid-July, a reporter with Friday magazine asked Osaka prefectural education officials: Where's the Beef?

More precisely, who supplies the beef to Sakai school cafeterias? The officials provided the names of wholesalers of vegetables, fruits, baked goods and other items -- but adamantly and repeatedly refused to disclose the names of meat suppliers.

The Sunday, August 11, edition of Sankei Shimbun revealed that the DNA-type of the O157 strain that infected more than 5,000 schoolchildren in Sakai, and forced the closure of 92 schools, is identical to certain samples provided by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. This findings suggests that the source of the epidemia is beef imported from the United States or elsewhere in North America (Canada and Mexico should not be discounted as potential sources).

What is implied by these facts is that dirty beef has been imported by wholesalers, possibly bypassing meat inspection regulations and customs authorities. Another disturbing possibility is that substandard beef purchased at cut-rate prices overseas, may have been sold to Japanese school cafeterias for the same price as expensive Japanese-produced beef -- especially in low-income areas such as Sakai, which has the highest percentage of burakumin of any Japanese city -- for years and even decades before the current outbreak of O157. Such profiteering could only have been done by organized crime -- with the knowing approval of officials with the powerful Education Ministry.

AERA magazine, in the Aug. 19-26 issue, reported that, indeed, the catering services that provide lunches, milk and bread to public schools are operated by companies run and staffed by retired Education Ministry bureaucrats and former ministry employees. The school lunch caterers are part of the amakudari, or descent from Heaven, practice, of providing jobs for former bureaucrats or bureaucrats on leave and, often, stipends or fees to ministry officials while still in public service.

Providing school lunches may seem a demeaning job for an ex-bureaucrat, but it is a gold mine for the corrupt ones. Illicit profits and bribery would explain the silence of Osaka prefectural officials regarding the wholesalers of the beef products who supplied the Sakai school cafeterias. First, a very rough calculation. If a yakuza-linked trading firm purchased the cheapest grade of U.S. hamburger, which sells for as little as $1 per kilogram, and sold it to schools, senior homes and company cafeterias at market value for Japanese meat, between $25-$40 per kg, the profit margin would be an extraordinary factor of 20 to 40 times the original price. If this racket actually went on for decades, the public would have been bilked for billions of dollars -- more than enough to line the pockets of hundreds of Education Ministry officials and their politician allies.

Deliberate Poisoning?

The public revelation of a price-skimming racket involving bureaucrats and yakuza distributors -- which accidentally led to the deaths and painful hospitalization of schoolchildren -- would be explosive. The PTA has been criticizing the school lunch program for not being nutritious enough -- poisoning children would be the worst case scenario, which could lead to a major voter rebellion against the LDP and other major parties -- not to mention criminal negligence and possible homicide charges against Education Ministry officials. This would explain the media coverup.

But what makes the possibility of food adulteration and official bribery seem even more likely is a series of suspicious and highly disturbing threats of food tampering, which is a typical tactic in yakuza intimidation to enforce mafia-style silence.

  • On July 1, four children collapsed unconscious in a school playground in Aomori Prefecture from an unidentified toxic liquid substance found at the bottom of a slide;
  • On July 7, four children, between 4 months and 5 years in age, were poisoned with amphetamines placed in a hot water bottle at Wakayama Medical College Hospital
  • On July 28, a 27-year-old man, a friend of the mother, was arrested for feeding stimulants to a baby at a hospital in Himeiji, located near Kobe.
  • On July 14, a suspect, Michikazu Yokoyama, 47, was arrested for sending a letter demanding a 100 million yen ransom and threatening to contaminate milk with O157 to Snow Brand Milk Products Co.;
  • Earlier another suspect was arrested for sending a similar O157 threat to the Yakult milk products company, which is headquartered in Hiroshima;
  • On Aug. 10, 42 participants at the Japan Esperanto Congress in Hiroshima, after dining at a hotel in nearby Miyajima, fell ill with an unidentified food poisoning, with symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea; 13 were hospitalized. As there were more than 200 participants, it can be assumed that the contamination was in a food item consumed by only one in five hotel guests. The type of toxin was not identified. Again, Hiroshima is the headquarters of Yakult.
  • On Aug. 14, hospitals in Niigata Prefecture were overwhelmed food poisoning victims. Later it was reported 229 people in the Jyoetsu area reportedly showed symptoms of vibrio parahaemolyticus, a parasite infection associated with crab meat. TV reports indicated most of the victims were guests at resort hotels, though the print media reported that they were ordinary householders who bought infected crab meat at local stores.
  • On Aug. 23, 537 junior high and high school students in Hokkaido came down with food poisoning, with symptoms of diarrhea and fever. Some of the students were diagnosed as having salmonella. Hokkaido is the main milk production region for the Tokyo-headquartered Snow Brand, which received the threat in July.
  • On Aug. 24, a suspect was arrested in Tokyo for sending letters to 7-Eleven Japan that he would lace bread products with O157. The 51-year-old executive claimed to be 30 million yen (300,000 dollars) in debt. He made 20 harassing calls to the chain store and, strangely, phoned the police 17 times on the night before his arrest.
  • In late August, 49 more school poisonings were reported in Hokkaido.
  • On Sept. 3 & 4, 30 employees with the Supreme Public Prosecutors Office (attorney general's office) and the Justice Ministry were poisoned at the sushi bar inside the 6th government office building in Kasumigaseki, Tokyo. This latest mass poisoning of law-enforcement authorities may well have been the bacteriological equivalent of the previous year's gassing of the Kasumigaseki subway station, which many journalists suspect was intended as a strike against the National Police Agency headquarters. The yakuza have declared war on the Japanese people.

Crime Connection

These food poisoning cases occurred at a time when food service institutions were taking extreme precautions against any possibility of contamination. Across the country, raw food was reduced to a minimum; nearly every food item was subjected to extra cooking. And yet as many as a thousand people were hit by food poisoning. (Many cases, including foreigners in Tokyo, went unreported by health authorities.)

While some of these cases could be interpreted as pranks or crude extortion attempts, what the pattern suggests -- especially in Hiroshima, Wakayama and Hokkaido -- is familiar strategy employed by the yakuza: Debtors are forced by crime bosses to commit seemingly irrational, random crimes to fulfill the larger purpose of intimidating business executives and government officials into silence. One security expert -- a former Ground Self-Defense Force instructor who wrote an article in the Weekly Hoseki (Sept. 19) -- even suggested that North Korean operatives were behind the 0157 poisonings -- a theory that the author of this report does not discount, as there seems to be a Korean connection to these incidents. The current series of poisonings are reminiscent of the wave of organized crime assaults against the Morinaga milk, Glico candy and House curry companies in 1984, involving kidnapping, extortion and the lacing of candy with cyanide. In the Glico case, the company president who was kidnapped from his home and purportedly escaped after three days, is suspected by police as having previous dealings with his captors. In fact, police later recovered a cassette tape containing a threat to the Glico company, sent more than a year before the kidnapping.

What the Morinaga-Glico cases have in common with the current ones is that the target companies all deal in either dairy or meat, or both products -- the most profitable sector of the food industry. Meat and milk products are also prone to product adulteration, legal and illegal, which adds to the profit margins. Does this really happen in affluent Japan? On Sept. 12, police raided dairy producers in Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture, and in Miyagi Prefecture for cutting fresh milk with powdered milk and water. The dairy cooperatives were adulterating the milk apparently under pressure from their distributors.

All the companies also provide their dairy or meat products to the highly lucrative, ''captive'' market of cafeterias in public institutions and corporate dining rooms, and to the caterers who supply these facilities. Adulteration of dairy and meat products sold to school cafeterias and other institutional food service outlets can add up to enormous profits for yakuza-tied companies and massive bribes for Education Ministry officials. Perhaps this is why the Japanese media went to such great extremes to divert public attention away from meat and milk products and scapegoated instead vegetable growers, especially the radish sprout producers. The non-O157 poisonings, if they were deliberately done to enforce a media coverup and to block an investigation into cause of death of 12 people, constitute acts of terrorism against society. Poisonings of such nationwide extent -- from Hiroshima to Hokkaido -- would indicate that it is the work of a major organized crime group, with ties to powerful bureaucrats and politicians -- and which has access to biological toxins. As we follow this line of investigation -- that some of the poisonings were a form of terrorist use of bacteriological warfare -- it needs be pointed out that research is still being conducted at this moment by a loose network of investigative reporters, who are confronting a systematic effort by ministry officials to block this probe.

Food Adulteration Racket

If cheap, imported hamburger is adulterated with beef intestines (as is the case with most prepared hamburger patties in Japan), the illicit profits would be astronomical.

Hamburger meat should remain the chief suspect not only because it is cited as the main cause of O157 poisoning in the U.S. but also because it is used so widely by public food-service institutions -- in hamburger patties, Scotch eggs, curry, niku-jaga stew. Cheaper hamburger is the meat of slaughtered dairy cows -- meat that is too fatty, tough, odiferous and laden with hormones and antibiotics to be served as steak, and sometimes from ''downer'' cows, unable to stand up because of diseases. Moreover, cheaper hamburger is a mixture of scrap meat.

In Japan, hamburger meat usually mixed with a high content of intestinal tissue, which gives it a soft, mushy texture as compared with ground sirloin. (Most cases of O157, and mad cow disease, have been linked to dairy cattle, not steers, perhaps indicating some connection to female hormones. It also shows that high grade beef, especially from range steers, is generally much safer for consumption.)

Intestine meat also goes into wiener sausages. The hot dog is produced from offal and scrap meat -- eyeballs, joints, nerve tissue, cartilage, organ trimmings and intestines -- that are pureed and mixed with rendered fat and fillers such as oats and stuffed into a casing of small intestines. Conditions in slaughterhouses, needless to say, are less than pristine. The new U.S. meat processing rules -- tying the anus and gullet before removal of the gastrointestinal tract -- help somewhat, but the intestines have to be hosed out and washed. The constant risk of fecal contamination exists to the meat, the hands of meat cutters, knives and in the water used to cleanse the intestines and carcasses. Simply put, it's a bloody, messy business where spillage is unavoidable.

The intestines of U.S. cattle started to enter Japan in the 1970s, with imports led by industry leader Stamina Foods, based in Nishinomiya, a Kobe meat-packing district, a corporation backed by Mitsui, Marubeni trading, Sakura Bank, the 5 M Corp. and Go-ai Kosan Co., which remains the leading force in intestine sales.

Beef intestines are part of both Taiwanese and Korean cuisine. Currently, they are used especially in Korean-style soups, and they confer a ''macho'' image on male consumers. Called ''shiro'' or ''motsu'', beef intestines are part of ''hormone-yaki'' cuisine -- grilled pig livers and other organ meat, often accompanied by a kimchee-flavored motsu soup. (Hormone-yaki is widely believed to increase children's growth.) A favorite product, found in every supermarket, is beef intestines marinated in red pepper powder, under the trade name ''Kotet-chan.''

The macho name is strikingly similar to Aizu Kotetsu, a major Kyoto-headquartered organized crime group, which controls much of the trucking industry connecting the Kansai cities with Maizuru (the major Japan Sea port to North and South Korea), and refrigerated truck lines to the Tohoku area, where much of Japan's dairy and meat products are raised. The 1,600-member gang is known for its macho style and extreme violence in turf wars with Yamaguchi-gumi-related groups, especially in the border area between Tokyo and the Tohoku. It has a significant ethnic Korean membership as well as alliances with major ethnic Korean organized crime groups in Tokyo and other large cities.

The 1,600-member Aizu Kotetsu, Japan's sixth-largest gang, has also been linked to Aum Shinrikyo's terrorist underground wing, because this crime group reputedly arranged the supply of methamphetamine precursor chemicals from Kansai area companies to the Satian No.7 plant in Kamikuiishiki village (in a direct challenge to the Yamaguchi-gumi's Kansai-based drug-production monopoly, nearly setting off a titanic gang war). With ties to Aum and to both Koreas, Taiwan and Russia, the underworld group would have access to the technical knowhow for deploying bacteriological weapons and perhaps to the toxins themselves, although the latter would be available from laboratory suppliers in Japan, Korea or Taiwan. The sect scientists' extensive knowledge of antidotes and vaccines could also be useful to anyone attempting delivery of biological agents.

The Black Market:

Food adulteration and profit-skimming could also explain the still unsolved Morinaga-Glico case of 1984, when gangsters threatened to poison their products with low dosages of sodium cyanide. This antisocial threat went far beyond the bounds of a kidnapping-for-ransom crime. The key clue could be milk, the common product for both companies (Glico caramels are made of milk).

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, increasing farm productivity meant that Japanese consumers could enjoy a much larger supply of unadulterated dairy and meat products. Real milk and meat were pushing aside ersatz food products.

But since the end of the war till the 1980s, much of Japan's milk supply was skimmed milk. One popular summer product was a diluted ice cream substitute, known as ice milk. But milk was rationed after the war. So where did the milk companies get their supply? Most of the rationed milk was allocated to hospitals and public school lunch programs.

Did Japanese education bureaucrats divert some of the critical milk supply to the black market? Did the Japanese dairy processors develop a murky relationship with the yakuza, who acted as a go-between with the bureaucrats? Did the importation of powdered milk continue long after the Occupation and did yakuza have to threaten poison attacks to prevent the loss of lucrative contracts? As the 10-year statute of limitations on the Glico kidnapping case was expiring in 1994, the police had interviewed the president of Glico more than 10 times, but could get no clear answers about his company's ties to the alleged extortionists.

The relationship between yakuza and the food distribution system is also illustrated in the Takashimaya case. The prestigious department store Takashimaya, which began business as purveyors of curtains to the imperial household, became a retailing force in the colonial trade with Japanese military-occupied Korea, Taiwan and Manchuria. The recent revelations about the Takashimaya Department Store's close, even intimate relationship with a sokaiya group (the company president and crime boss regularly had dinner and drinks together) is typical of the relationship between the Kansai food industry and organized crime. (Remember that inside the basement of every department store is a super-supermarket.) The roots of the relationship between Takashimaya and the sokaiya known as Gokuraku-kai (Paradise, or Ultimate Pleasure, Association) goes back to the days of the Occupation era black market in Osaka.

Under the guidance of Japan's Foreign Ministry Recreation and Amusement Association (RAA) program, the Gokuraku-kai organized prostitution for U.S. and Allied servicemen in the Kansai region. As the GIs often gave gifts to the prostitutes or use these to obtain other services, the Gokuraku-kai moved into the black market in cigarettes, liquor, nylon stockings and American foodstuffs. Much larger shipments, of course, could be obtained off of U.S. Navy cargo vessels at the Kobe docks. The rationing system had basically destroyed all wholesale sources for major retailers, who then turned to the yakuza for both basic and luxury goods. (Takashimaya restarted its business in 1947.) In this manner, the yakuza managed to insinuate itself into the distribution system, between the retail sector and the wholesalers and trading companies. The underworld, thus, occupies a nearly unassailable position inside the consumer economy and has enormous political clout.

Hush Money

Where there's money, there are politicians and bureaucrats -- and vice versa. As soon as the daikon sprout growers and sushi restaurateurs threatened a lawsuit against the government, several financial institutions stepped forward to offer low-interest loans to businesses hit by the panic. Bakeries, grocery stores and restaurants could count on MITI-related financial institutions to come to their aid with low-interest loans -- the Japan Finance Corp. for Small Business, the People's Finance Corp and the Environmental Sanitation Business Financing Corp.

But several private banks also stepped forward to lend. One was the notorious Osaka-based Daiwa Bank. Another offering unsecured loans was the Osaka-based regional bank, Fukutoku Bank -- which can ill-afford such high-risk lending. Fukutoku is one of the four so-called ''rust banks,'' or FH2O: Fukutoku, Hanshin, Hyogo and Osaki Shinmin. Rumors in the banking industry have for the past two years suggested these banks are straddled with bad loans far exceeding their deposits and assets. Fukutoku is particularly notorious for its clients, which include top politicians and some very shady figures.

Now -- with the air of the Kansai reeking with the stench of yet another case of criminal negligence -- it seems the politicians are loosening the purse strings to buy more Mafia-like silence.

An International Scandal

The pattern of deaths -- Kobe first, then Okayama to the west and Nagoya to the east and 15 prefectures, including Tokyo, and finally Sakai -- indicates the bad meat contaminated with O157 probably entered the country through the Port of Kobe.

O157 can survive in a freezer and multiply at temperatures as low as 4 C in a meat locker. Therefore, over time, the virulence of the bad meat increases. Sakai, being Japan's city with the highest percentage of burakumin and a large number of Korean families, must have been the final dumping ground for stale meat. This would account for the large number of cases there.

At the end of August, a meat distributor in Kagawa, Shikoku, discovered O157 contamination on a side of beef imported from the United States. The carcass had been air-freighted into Kansai International Airport on Aug. 1. The contaminated beef had cleared customs -- U.S. meat is inspected on the American side of the Pacific.

Tracing the contaminated meat will not be easy, because of deregulation. Dozens of Japanese meat packers have invested heavily in feed lots and packing plants in California, Nebraska and other states. But meat importing also involves hundreds of different companies of varying size -- from meat suppliers like Ito Ham and Fukutome Meat Packers, supermarket chains like Ito-Yokado, Daei and Yaohan, transportation firms like JAL and Hankyu Railways, and fast food chains like McDonald's and Wendy's. And discount meat can also be obtained surreptitiously on the spot market through smaller distributors with Mafia connections. And Nishinomiya, Japan's packing house city, is teeming with gangsters.

These practically unregulated avenues in the global food trade point out a fundamental weakness in the World Trade Organization -- that the greatest beneficiary of so-called free trade are organized crime groups, the now-multinational mafias. The WT0 has opened world markets without any consumer protection provisions or crime enforcement -- only naive idiots without any sense of social reality would have created such a world economic order without real rules. It is possible to dump deadly foodstuffs in countries where customs and health officials are lax or corrupt. U.K. beef contaminated with mad cow disease has reported, for instance, in Greece, possibly on its way to the Balkans or the Caucasus. The nearly nonexistent health protection is a result of U.S. trade pressures to open Japan's beef market in the late 1980s. Furthermore, Japan's Foreign Ministry and MITI have promoted the import of beef as it is a high-value product that helps to balance Japanese exports of automobiles and consumer electronics. But beef, unlike metal, is biological. With a dozen people dead, and more deaths likely, those who are participating in the coverup -- education bureaucrats, politicians, public health officials, meat industry and trading company executives, trade officials and news editors -- have blood on their hands. Like in the case of the HIV-contaminated blood products, which involved a government and media coverup, the surviving kin of victims need to organize their own investigation, press a lawsuit and bring all the criminals to justice.

This article originally appeared in Archipelago magazine.

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Note:  A related article can be found at: 

"High Court Orders Gov't to Redress Radish Sprout Growers", May 21/03, Kyodo