Econa Shock - Japanese Top Oil Product Leads to FOSHU Review

On September 16th, 2009, the Japanese major soap maker, Kao Corporation (President and CEO: Motoki Ozaki) announced that the company will temporarily halt sales of 59 Econa-related products, including Econa Cooking Oil. The products had been sold as FOSHU (Food for Specified Health Uses, known as “TOKUHO”) with permitted claim related to weight loss and weight maintenance approved by the Ministry of Health Labour and Welfare (MLHW) since 1998.

This recall was due to the products containing glycidol fatty acid esters, which occurs as a by-product in the general process of deodorization during the production of fats and oils, and is contained in refined vegetable oils, including palm oil. Recently some European studies revealed that this component may morph into a suspected carcinogen after it is digested. In response to discussions centering in Europe on the safety of this component contained in fats and oils, Kao conducted an analysis of Econa Cooking Oil in the middle of June 2009. It was confirmed that Econa Cooking Oil contains a small amount of glycidol fatty acid esters.

The company said Econa is perfectly safe based on the numerous scientific assessments and the approvals of sales in 33 countries as a food product. They were reluctant to stop sales at first, but decided to withdraw it from the market temporarily until it reduces the amount of the problem substance and "people have no reasons to worry anymore"

However, the problem was not easy to solve as the company was expecting. This “precautionary” recall resulted in confusion in the minds of consumers; “Why does Kao refrain voluntarily from selling Econa while they say it’s safe?” Kao could not respond to this question and failed to understand people’s concerns about the food safety. More than 270,000 calls from consumers were placed to the hot line set up by Kao in the last month.

The Consumer Affairs Agency, which was newly established this year to focus on a wide range of consumer-related issues including defective products, unsafe foods mislabeling and fraudulent business practices and which has taken over the approval procedure for FOSHU from MHLW has announced that they would start procedures to cancel the health label authorization for the Econa series. Before this could be implemented, Kao decided to revoke the FOSHU label voluntarily and stated that they would file a new FOSHU application to the authorities for new Econa products, aiming at a new start of the brand. On November 17th, the Consumer Affairs Agency announced that they would form a committee including the members from consumer organizations and experts for further discussions to review or even consider abolishing the whole system of FOSHU approval.

--History of Econa—

May 1998: Econa Cooking Oil has obtained an approval of FOSHU labeling as a first oil product.
February 1999: Kao launched Econa Cooking Oil
June 29th 2009: Kao reported to the Ministry of Health Labour and Welfare that their products contain a small amount of glycidol fatty acid esters, which could be broken down to a carcinogenic substance during digestion.
September 1st 2009: The Consumer Affairs Agency was launched.
September 16th 2009: Kao announced to temporarily suspend the sales and shipping of the Econa series.
October 8th 2009: The Consumer Affairs Agency announced to start procedures to cancel the health label authorization for the Econa series. Kao submitted a revocation notice pertaining to FOSHU approval for current Econa products

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