The Problem With Econa Food Oil

Applying the “Precautionary Principle” would help Japan avoid problems like the Econa food oil scandal

In September, Kao Corp. announced [1] that it would “temporarily” stop sales of its best-selling Econa food oil products, called Enova in North America [2]. The news was a shock to everyone in Japan as the products carried the designated health food label, indicating that the oil was a food for specified health uses (such as cholesterol reduction). This is an example of the confusion that can occur because Japan does not apply the precautionary principle in its food legislation.

Under the government’s official “Tokuho” label system Kao Corp was allowed to claim that Econa products “make it difficult for fat to cling to the body.” This system is called FOSHU in English, an abbreviation of the words Foods for Specified Health Use. The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare (MHLW) set up ‘Foods for Specified Health Use’ (FOSHU) in 1991 as a regulatory system to approve the statements made on food labels concerning the effect of the food on the human body [3].

Tokuho Label, authorized by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.
Label of "Tokuho", foods for specified health use, authorized by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.

Kao Corp has introduced over 50 products one after the other to cash in on its health claim, and similar food oils were also sold in South Korea and elsewhere.

However, there are two major problems with Econa [4]. First, the possibility that the diacylglycerol (DAG) in Econa is a carcinogenic component. Already in 2003 when Kao Corp was getting permission to use the health label on its Econa Mayonnaise Type products, concerns emerged about the processing, and animal studies were done. In 2005, it was suggested that this substance could cause tongue cancer, and a special committee started deliberations in the Food Safety Commission. This work took time as more animal testing was conducted, and this year the deliberation was reopened. However, the opinions have remained divided, as it became complicated for the experts to interpret the experimental results.

Kao Corp was reluctant to stop sales

Furthermore, in July this year, a new impurity was detected in the oil at levels nearly 100 times higher than in normal food oils. The substance is called glycidol fatty acid ester, which was classified in 2000 as a probable carcinogen. The expert committee came to the point of starting the risk appraisal anew to investigate the new data. Because this would take time, there was an urgent request that the levels should be reduced to be as low as in normal food oil.

In other words, the approach to wait until the safety testing provided evidence of risk turned out to be a dead end. In spite of the early concerns, Kao Corp was allowed to continue sales even as the experts continued their deliberation in the Food Safety Commission committee.

It was not until September that Kao Corp made the decision to withdraw its Econa products from the market in Japan. Evona sales in North America were also suspended, and other companies followed suit elsewhere. Japan’s government did not do anything, as the company “temporarily” halted the sales. This is in stark contrast to the European approach to food safety, which is based on the precautionary principle. In Europe, a new product would not be allowed on the market if there is concern about its characteristics or its content. In case of strong concerns, the products would remain banned, not just temporarily withdrawn. While the approach in the European Union also has its critics, at least a product series like Econa cannot easily be introduced and marketed under the more consumer-friendly EU food legislation.

On September 25, consumer organizations invited representatives from Kao Corp and the relevant government officials to discuss this problem. During the study meeting, Kao Corp insisted that the Econa products are safe to eat, and claimed that they had exercised self-control by halting the sales while further investigating the products. The consumer organizations asked why the health label was not withdrawn by the Consumer Agency. This contradiction was a further result of the legislation that expects evidence of harm before the government can act to prohibit a product.

As consumer advocates including food safety expert Ueda Taketomo has noted, it is obvious that once permission is given to start the sales of a new product, the hurdle to prove that a product is harmful becomes too high. Econa has carried the official health label since 1998, and doubts about its safety emerged already in 2003.

The government finally announced on October 8, 2009 that they would start procedures to cancel the health label authorization for Kao’s Econa series, according to Kyodo News [5].

Kao Corp will make every effort to lower the levels of glycidol, and is anticipating to put Econa on the market again in February 2010. The government has no legal way to stop them from doing that, as the deliberation in the expert committee of the Food Safety Commission will take several years before reaching any conclusion about the risks. Changing the food legislation to be based on the precautionary principle is the only way to make sure that this type of scandal does not happen again.

Notes ———————————————————

[1] Kao Corp News Release, Kao to Temporarily Refrain from Selling Econa Products. September 16, 2009
[2] AOCS, Kao halts sales of DAG oil. September 16, 2009
[3] Shimizu Toshio, Health claims on functional foods: the Japanese regulations and an international comparison. Nutrition Research Reviews (2003), 16, 241–252
[4] Ueda Taketomo, Food Safety Citizens Watch No 22, September 30, 2009 (in Japanese only)
[5] Kyodo News, Health food labelling to be withdrawn from Kao’s Econa series. October 8, 2009