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Around JAPAN: Lab bets on veggies to lead testing race

UTSUNOMIYA

Consumers shopping for fresh veggies may hesitate to bet on the results of chemical testing conducted by an institute associated with the mercurial sport of horse racing.

After all, doping has long been a problem in that sport.

Can consumers trust Japan's only racehorse testing institute to give the public the lowdown on the safety of fruits and vegetables?

Here in Tochigi Prefecture's capital, the Laboratory of Racing Chemistry (LRC) hopes they will.

Despite its low profile, the LRC has been the arbiter of honesty at the track for decades.

In recent years, however, demand for the institute's expertise has fallen as debt-ridden racetracks, many operated by local governments, have closed or scaled down around the country.

So the LRC has branched out into testing for the residues of agricultural chemicals on fruits and vegetables.

In races run by the Tokyo-based Japan Racing Association (JRA), the nation's largest track operator, samples of urine and blood are taken from horses immediately after weekend races and brought to the LRC's lab on Monday mornings.

Testers check the samples and return the results in 24 hours. In 2003, the LRC checked 55,535 samples from horse races and 53,429 in 2004.

They routinely test for 62 prohibited substances. In the past few years, on average, one sample a year has been found to indicate a horse was doped before a race.

In 2003, a slight amount of the stimulant caffeine was detected in a horse that had raced in Tokyo.

``Among human athletes, usually just the first- to third-place finishers are subject to doping tests,'' LRC director Ikutaka Otake said.

``But we test even the losers because they may have been doped to make them run slower. We would, for example, test a favorite that has unexpectedly lost a race,'' he said.

According to JRA officials, testing racehorses for unauthorized substances first began between 1910 and 1920 in Britain and France. In 1948, Japan enacted its first Horse Racing Law, and dope testing began soon after.

Since that time, the LRC has conducted research and testing ranging from doping tests to DNA tests to confirm the sires of foals.

Now faced with a drop in horse-racing commissions, however, the institute is concerned about its own bottom line.

Testing of horses that run at smaller, local racetracks has fallen in recent years-from 51,707 samples in 2001 to 47,394 in 2002, to 45,172 in 2003 and to 42,886 in 2004.

So in 2002, the institute began to capitalize on its research technology to expand its offerings.

It now has a growing sideline business in testing for agricultural chemical residues on fruits and vegetables. Many of them are domestic apples, as well as broccoli, burdock, green soybeans and sweet potatoes from China.

Some of the produce has turned out to be not eligible for human consumption because it contained banned chemicals.

``Most of the 63 requests we received for fruit and vegetable checks in 2003 came from government-affiliated institutions,'' Otake said. ``That's thanks to the high reliability of our testing skills.''

The LRC received 127 such requests in 2004.

Having a trusted name is essential because often, the name of the testing laboratory is posted next to fruit and vegetable displays in supermarkets to reassure consumers.

``I wonder whether consumers will put their trust in an organization associated with horse racing. But we have confidence in our abilities,'' Otake said.(IHT/Asahi: January 10,2005)




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