Court Upholds Redress for Farmer State Fined Over Wrongful Report About Food Poisoning the Japan Times

Court upholds redress for farmer
State fined over wrongful report about food poisoning
The Japan Times: Feb. 20, 2004

OSAKA (Kyodo) The Osaka High Court on Thursday upheld a lower court ruling ordering the government to pay 6 million yen to a farmer for damaging his livelihood in 1996 by erroneously identifying his daikon sprouts as the probable cause of a fatal outbreak of food poisoning caused by the 0-157 strain of E. coli bacteria.

News photo
Hajimu Minamino (center), who had been seeking government compensation over the E. coli bacteria outbreak in 1996, faces reporters in Osaka.

Hajimu Minamino, 66, of Habikino, Osaka Prefecture, had been seeking 52.5 million yen in compensation from the government. The government had appealed the March 15, 2002, ruling by the Osaka District Court, arguing that the circumstances justified the announcements.

Presiding Judge Akitaka Nakata said the announcements by the health minister and other officials at the time were “illegal, as they gave the impression that the radish sprouts were the precise cause of the incident, even though there was not enough scientific evidence.”

In July 1996, more than 9,000 people in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, contracted food poisoning. Most were elementary school students, three of whom died.

The Health and Welfare Ministry announced in September of that year that “kaiware daikon,” white radish sprouts, shipped from “specific facilities” were the most likely cause of the food poisoning.

Naoto Kan, who now heads the Democratic Party of Japan, was serving as health minister at the time and announced the ministry’s conclusion in a news conference. An expert who accompanied Kan at the news conference said the ministry was “95 percent” certain that kaiware daikon was to blame for the outbreak.

Although the ministry did not name the farm, Minamino’s farm was soon identified through media reports and his sales dropped sharply.

Minamino had claimed that no 0-157 bacteria were detected in his farm’s facilities or wells and that studies by the government and related organizations were not scientific.

The source of the food poisoning is still unknown.

The high court concluded that the studies were insufficient, adding, “There was neither necessity nor emergency for the minister to actively release” the results of the investigation.

The latest decision is the second of its kind handed down by a high court and may have an impact on ways in which central and local governmental authorities release health information, amid rising concerns over new types of infections, including the spread of bird flu and the SARS epidemic.

“This is a very tough sentence. We will decide what to do after studying the ruling,” said Akira Endo, head of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry’s food safety department.

Kan also released a statement justifying his 1996 decision to mention kaiware daikon as the suspected source of the poisoning.

“I am certain that my decision was correct at that time,” he told reporters at the Diet. “If the government is unable to release its findings unless it is 100 percent certain, it will not be able to announce anything concerning mad cow disease or bird flu, which would be inappropriate for the health and safety of the people.”

Takeo Sakurai, a lawyer for the plaintiff, hailed the ruling as a “sweeping victory.”

“We must think about those who will be put in the public spotlight,” he said, noting the decision raises questions about how to handle information disclosure in the future.

The Nihon Kaiware Kyokai, an industry association, and 18 daikon sprout growers nationwide also filed a joint damages suit in December 1996 against the government.

The Tokyo District Court dismissed the claim in May 2001, but the Tokyo High Court last May ordered the government to pay 16.9 million yen to the growers.

The government has appealed.