After A Run Of Tainted Food Scandals, Women In Japan Took Control Of The System

"You cannot just rely on the mechanisms of capitalism.”
The Seikatsu Club cooperative began by buying milk in bulk. Today it sells everything from eggs and meat to jam and cookies,
The Seikatsu Club cooperative began by buying milk in bulk. Today it sells everything from eggs and meat to jam and cookies, some of which it produces itself. 

Eight years after a massive earthquake triggered a devastating tsunami and the meltdown of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, Japan is still grappling with the fallout.

A big concern for citizens is their food. As one of the country’s major food-producing areas, the coastal region of Fukushima supplies products like rice, mushrooms and fish throughout Japan, as well as overseas. But in the wake of one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters, people still worry that what they’re eating may be contaminated with toxic levels of radiation ― even if it meets government standards.

Not Yuka Uchiumi. The food she buys meets radiation standards twice as strict as the government’s.

The mother of three who lives in Koriyama City in Fukushima Prefecture is a member of Seikatsu Club, a huge food cooperative founded by a group of women in Japan which has exacting standards on everything from radioactivity levels to the number of additives in food. These standards are set by people just like her.

It’s the desire of members to take responsibility for ensuring food is as safe as possible that appeals to Uchiumi. “Not leaving the job to someone else,” she says. “I can trust it.”

Yuka Uchiumi says a big motivating factor for joining Seikatsu when she did in 2001 was to get more involved in her local com
Yuka Uchiumi says a big motivating factor for joining Seikatsu when she did in 2001 was to get more involved in her local community, back when the cooperative’s delivery system focused on supplying neighborhood groups.

Seikatsu Club was launched in Japan in 1965, initially focusing on bringing down the price of milk for households by securing bulk-purchase discounts.

Fast-forward five decades and Seikatsu, which in Japanese means “daily life,” is now a sprawling operation of nearly 400,000 members (about 90 percent of whom are women) that runs its own milk factory and has food supply agreements with about 200 outside producers. In addition, some of the production ― for example, of jam and baked goods like cookies ― is now done by workers collectives that are part of the cooperative.

Distrust in industrial food standards in Japan dates back decades and has helped drive an increase in Seikatsu’s members. Consumers were shocked by a series of food safety scandals during Japan’s post-war economic boom.

In 1955, a milk arsenic poisoning case was linked to the deaths of more than 100 children. Soon afterward, in a separate scandal, scientists documented horrific symptoms among people who had eaten seafood in Minamata in southern Japan. Minamata disease, discovered in 1956, was connected to the release of mercury in industrial wastewater from a nearby chemical factory.

“People were losing trust in food,” says Yuriko Ito, the executive director of Seikatsu Club, sitting in the headquarters in Tokyo’s busy Shinjuku district. The scandals jolted people because they affected foods that were previously considered healthy, she adds. “That’s how people realized that they could not just trust these claims. They have to think for themselves in order to protect themselves and their families.”

Seikatsu’s biggest-selling items include milk, eggs and meat, although another favorite is the ketchup. Out of the 819 food additives approved by the Japanese government, Seikatsu allows only 85.

Some of the Seikatsu Club cooperative product range.
Some of the Seikatsu Club cooperative product range.

“Because the raw ingredients are very good, everything tastes good,” Ito says. “Because we minimize the use of chemicals and additives in our products ― we don’t have things like MSG ― it’s a very natural taste. I think one of the reasons why the number of members has increased is because people like what they taste.”

Experts believe the hands-on involvement of members in setting and reviewing the food standards is key to the co-operative’s success.

“Seikatsu shows us what democratic management and regulation without bureaucracy looks like,” explains Michael Menser, an assistant professor at The City University of New York who has studied the grassroots movement.

“They train themselves to inspect the farms and the businesses in their supply chain,” he adds. “They don’t contract it out to independent parties, nor do they wait for the government to do it. This is huge.”

Food system failures tend to highlight the lack of control that everyday citizens around the world have over the products they consume ― beyond the fairly passive act of selecting one item at a shop over another. As food supply businesses grow in size and spread across national borders, consumers can begin to feel increasingly distant from the farmers and workers who actually grow and make the things they eat.

Seikatsu Club attempts to transform that dynamic by putting members at the center of the quality-control process and increasing transparency. This helped to attract people in large numbers at critical moments, including after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. In the months immediately after the nuclear accident, Seikatsu says its membership grew at nearly double the normal rate.

Seikatsu Club members visit the factory where the cooperative is developing its own yogurt.
Seikatsu Club members visit the factory where the cooperative is developing its own yogurt.

Mindful that farmers could be hurt by stricter radiation standards, the co-op set up a fund in 2013 to provide compensation to farmers whose produce had been rejected. The money, which was raised in a donations drive, helps pay for measures to reduce radiation pollution on the affected properties.

“It motivates producers to continue their decontamination efforts while still producing products,” Ito says.

As the fallout from Fukushima plays out, the cooperative also runs an annual fundraising campaign to support the region’s recovery, including supplying a new boat to a local fishing cooperative. The donations have also funded children to go on “refresh tours” to less contaminated areas for relaxation and thyroid gland checkups.

“When such huge incidents happen, companies leave the region … and then people are left in the areas, so we also worked on caring for those people. We feel like you cannot just rely on the mechanisms of capitalism ― that it’s dangerous to just leave everything to capitalism,” Ito says.

This idea of community relationships was also a big motivating factor for Uchimi to join Seikatsu in 2001, back when the cooperative’s delivery system focused on supplying neighborhood groups. “I thought the fastest way to make friends would be to join a co-op group,” she recalls.

Most members now receive their products by direct delivery to their homes, but some neighborhoods still have combined group deliveries. 

Seikatsu Club hosts a tasting event to introduce producers and cooperative members.
Seikatsu Club hosts a tasting event to introduce producers and cooperative members.

Anyone can join the club for a fee of about 1,000 yen ($9) per month. Members also have to pay an initial contribution that varies from region to region, but it is refundable if and when they quit the club in the future.

Some members can choose to become more involved, for example by participating in “step up” checks where they go to farms or other production sites to inspect their processes.

Menser, who showcased Seikatsu Club in his recent book We Decide!: Theories and Cases in Participatory Democracy, says it’s fascinating that the group that started as a buying club was smart enough to pool its capital and start worker co-ops. This allowed them to create their own supply chains in the food sector.

“That’s what we need consumer co-ops to do: take over supply chains and make them sustainable, worker-owned and community-oriented,” Menser says.

He says Seikatsu Club has also expanded beyond food into child care and elder care. “That’s huge as well, given how crucial those services are, especially with the burdens that they often unfairly put on women and also both of those sectors are exploitative and low-pay work,” Menser says.

To deliver these services, the club has coordinated with workers collectives, social welfare corporations and nonprofit organizations. Seikatsu members ― and non-members too ― can pay directly for those particular services when they access them.

The power sector is also in its sights. Following the deregulation of Japan’s retail electricity market in 2016, thousands of members have paid Seikatsu Club to supply them with power mainly generated from renewable sources such as wind and solar.

As Japan grapples with issues such as climate change and an aging population, however, the co-op expects to face big challenges. Climate impacts in Japan, for example, are expected to include changes in crop yields, a decline in the quality of agricultural products, and changes in the number of fish caught, according to analysis published by the government.

Meanwhile, as Japan’s low birthrate and long life expectancy fuel mean a much older population, the agricultural sector is tipped to face particularly intense labor shortages.

Seikatsu Club has sought to reassure producers that it will continue buying from them “so that the next generation will feel comfortable taking over from their predecessors and continue producing,” says Ito. Still, she worries that in the future it will become harder and harder to sustain the same level of agricultural production. “It’s the co-op’s responsibility to continue working on that issue,” she says.

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