Japan denies farmers damages in epidemic suit

TOKYO, Reuters

A Japanese court ruled against farmers on Wednesday in a suit demanding damages from the government for saying the radish sprouts they grew may have caused a fatal 1996 food poisoning epidemic.

Radish growers had demanded 2.2 billion yen (US$18.30 million) in compensation for loss of income after sales of the sprouts plunged.

Eleven died and nearly 10,000 fell ill from poisoning from the 0-157 E.coli bacillus in the summer of 1996, creating one of the biggest health scandals since World War II.

In its final report on the crisis, issued in 1996, the Health Ministry said it was unable to specify the source and route by which the bacteria spread, but said there was reason to believe that contaminated radish sprouts — a salad vegetable similar to cress — may have been the cause.

An earlier, informal report had linked the sprouts to the epidemic but subsequent tests gave the sprouts a clean bill of health.

The growers alleged the sprouts were used as a scapegoat to quell public fear of the epidemic and said their business has yet to recover even now, Jiji news agency reported.

“Without the ministry report, we would not have suffered. Therefore, the country bears responsibility,” the growers’ association was quoted as saying.

The western Japanese city of Sakai was hit hardest by the epidemic, with more than 6,500 people, mostly schoolchildren, affected. Experts believed the bacteria was in school lunches.

In an effort to rehabilitate the image of the radishes shortly after the crisis, then-Health Minister Naoto Kan — currently number two in the opposition Democratic Party — had tucked into three cartons of the vegetable as television cameras rolled.