In June 1996, initial reports of an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in Japan surfaced in national media.
By July 1996, focus had centered on specific school cafeterias and two vendors of box lunches, as the number of illnesses approached 4,000. Lunches of sea eel sushi and soup distributed on July 5 from Sakai’s central school lunch depot were identified by health authorities as a possible source of one outbreak. The next day, the number of illnesses had increased to 7,400 even as reports of Japanese fastidiousness intensified. By July 23, 1996, 8,500 were listed as ill.
Even though radish sprouts were ultimately implicated — and then publicly cleared in a fall-on-sword ceremony, but not by the U.S. — the Health and Welfare Ministry announced that Japan’s 333 slaughterhouses must adopt a quality control program modeled on U.S. safety procedures, requiring companies to keep records so the source of any tainted food could be quickly identified.
Kunio Morita, chief of the ministry’s veterinary sanitation division was quoted as saying “It’s high time for Japan to follow the international trend in sanitation management standards.”
Japanese health authorities were tragically slow to respond to the outbreak of E. coli O157:H7, a standard facilitated by a journalistic culture of aversion rather than adversarial. In all, over 9,500 Japanese, largely schoolchildren, were stricken with E. coli O157:H7 and 12 were killed over the summer of 1996, raising questions of political accountability.
The national Mainichi newspaper demanded in an editorial on July 31, 1996, “Why can’t the government learn from past experience? Why were they slow to react to the outbreak? Why can’t they take broader measures?” The answer, it said, was a “chronic ailment” — the absence of anyone in the government to take charge in a crisis and ensure a coordinated response. An editorial cartoon in the daily Asahi Evening News showed a health worker wearing the label “government emergency response” riding to the rescue on a snail. Some of the victims filed lawsuits against Japanese authorities, a move previously unheard of in the Japanese culture of deference.
Today, the sad news arrived that a 25-year-old woman in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, died in last October of an aftereffect of her infection with E. coli O157 in 1996.
The woman had been suffering renal vascular hypertension, a sequela of hemolytic-uremic syndrome she developed upon her infection with O-157 when she was a first-grade student, the city government said, adding the direct cause of her death was brain bleeding due to the hypertension.
Sakai Mayor Osami Takeyama said in a comment that the city will redouble efforts for safety control and crisis management.
The municipal government now plans to provide compensation for the family of the woman.
The current version of events in July 1996, according to the Japanese, was 9,523 sick, including 7,892 elementary school children, in Sakai who ate school lunch or other food were infected with the E. coli bacteria. In the massive outbreak, three girls died.