Cash for cages? Japan probes alleged bribery from chicken industry

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Japan’s decision to resist international pressure to improve conditions for egg-laying chickens is under scrutiny after allegations of bribery involving a former agriculture minister.

Takamori Yoshikawa, a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic party (LDP) who served as agriculture minister from October 2018 to September 2019, is alleged to have accepted JPY5m (GBP36,000) in undeclared donations from a former representative of a leading egg producer in Hiroshima prefecture, western Japan.

The first of three alleged payments was reportedly made approximately two months after the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) issued new draft guidance for egg producers to stop keeping chickens in notoriously cramped cages and install larger and more comfortable nest boxes and perches.

Yoshikawa, who represents a district on the northern main island of Hokkaido, has denied taking cash in comments to journalists. Prosecutors are investigating the allegations, which come as an embarrassment to Japan’s prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, who is known to be close to Yoshikawa.

Given that almost all of Japan’s egg producers use battery cages, which were banned by the EU in 2012, complying with the change would have meant making costly renovations to facilities.

Japan’s poultry industry has traditionally lobbied to keep chickens in battery cages, with multiple hens crammed into wire cages – a practice the European Food Safety Authority said left animals susceptible to disease and other health hazards.

Despite the global shift towards abolishing battery cages, 94% of poultry farmers in Japan continue to use them to house hens, according to a 2019 report by the International Egg Commission cited in the Japan Times.

In January 2019, the government said it opposed the OIE draft guidance on the grounds that the new arrangements for keeping poultry would increase the number of cracked and dirty eggs, and lead to a higher death rate among chickens.

The OIE, of which Japan is a member, has since watered down its guidance, saying the use of nest boxes and perches was “desirable” rather than a requirement. The OIE were approached for comment.

The apparent climbdown has dismayed animal rights campaigners. The Animal Rights Centre Japan said that instead of prolonging the suffering of chickens the industry should “work with governments and lawmakers to improve animal welfare”.

It urged the industry to “keep up with global animal welfare trends rather than cling to the status quo” to protect its profits.

Yoshikawa, 70, resigned from two LDP posts earlier this month, saying he was being treated in hospital for a heart problem. He promised to “respond sincerely” to investigators if summoned for questioning.

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