Top Norwegian officials arrived in Japan yesterday to promote their nation's seafood, but their long-term hopes to sell whale meat could be scuppered by worries that the delicacy is contaminated by toxic chemicals.
Tokyo and Norway have been discussing whale imports for over a year, but plans to resume the controversial trade were dealt a blow earlier this month when Norwegian scientists ruled that whale blubber it had hoped to sell to Japan contained dangerously high levels of banned PCB chemicals.
PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, were formerly used in everything from paint to plastics. They build up in fatty tissues and have been linked to birth defects.
The blubber contamination could cast a pall over talks on other whale products, such as meat, that are likely to arise during the visit of Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik, who arrived yesterday, and Fisheries Minister Svein Ludvigsen, who came on Sunday.
Oslo resumed the commercial hunting of minke whales in 1993, breaking with an international moratorium. Sales of the creamy blubber -- some 500 tonnes of which are stored in freezer ware-houses in Norway -- were long seen as a potential gold mine if exported to Japan, where it is a delicacy.
Japanese officials, though, say food safety is paramount.
"It's all about safety," said a Fisheries Ministry official. "The fact that they can't sell the blubber raises questions about the rest of the meat."
"Whale trade is quite a big issue internationally and so we must proceed prudently," he said.
Whale was an important source of protein in an impoverished Japan after World War II, but has become a scarce gourmet food in the last few decades as prices rose and supplies fell.
Media reports -- denied by officials -- have said whale imports were planned to bring down the price and spur consumption.
Consumer groups strongly oppose any imports.
"Not only the blubber, but also the red meat is contaminated," said Yoko Tomiyama, head of the Japan Consumers Union, citing a recent Norwegian warning that pregnant women should not eat whale because of high levels of toxic mercury.
"This should not be imported to Japan, and we have made our views clear to the government," she said.
Japan abandoned commercial whaling in 1986 but carries out what it calls scientific research whaling, with most of the meat from that research ending up on restaurant tables and grocery store shelves.
Tokyo agrees with protecting endangered species but argues that others, such as minkes, are numerous and not endangered.
It has made numerous attempts to reinstate commercial whaling and is set to do the same at the meeting of the International Whaling Commission from June 16.