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Chapter - 3 The arsenic milk poisoning incident

I. Baby milk in the structure of the consumer economy
II. Expanding production of powdered milk and the Morinaga Milk Company
III. The arsenic milk poisoning incident and the Morinaga Company's Response
IV. Visit after 14 years - The Maruyama report
V. Expansion of the movement to save the victims
VI. Establishment of the Hikari foundation

Kichiro Shoji and Masuro Sugai

From June to August 1955 in the western areas of Japan, including Kinki, Chugoku, Shikoku, and Kyushu, 12,131 new-born babies were poisoned and 130 died (according to a 1956 Ministry of Public Welfare survey), because during production arsenic had been mixed into the Morinaga Powdered Milk "MF" produced by the Tokushima plant of the Morinaga Milk Company.

In March 1981, after 26 years had passed, it was finally acknowledged that 13,389 persons had ingested MF milk, that 600 persons had died as a result, and that 6,093 persons were suffering from continuing health difficulties, with 624 afflicted by severe mental retardation, developmental difficulties, and brain-damage-related paralysis.

If one were to attribute the cause of this incident simply to a default in the production system of powdered baby milk, then one would fail to see its true repercussions. In fact, the incident was part of a social trend in which the practice of breast-feeding fell victim to the mechanisms of mass consumption promoted by the dairy industry, which took advantage of the general atmosphere in society at large, the medical administration, and, particularly, the community of paediatricians.

I. Baby milk in the structure of the consumer economy

Japan's public health administration mechanism in the post-Second World War period developed along the lines of the existing Health Centre Law, which was totally revised in 1947 on the basis of the Memorandum on Public Health Measures issued by the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the Allied occupation forces, with the main emphasis on maternal and child health protection and the eradication of tuberculosis using existing health centres (hokenjo) as its primary implementation instrument.

In pre-war Japan, which had high infant mortality levels (fig. 3.1) and a high death-rate among young people from TB, the average life-span was much shorter than in Western countries (table 3.1).

Fig. 3.1. Infant Death-rate, 1901-1905 (per 1,000) (after Kenko to jinrui, p. 72 and table 3.1).

A dramatic expression of the adverse social conditions under which pregnancy occurred is indicated by the high death-rates for pregnant women (fig. 3.2). The Japan that was bent on invading other countries was very concerned with improving the pool of battlefield human resources, and in 1936 established the Ministry of Social Welfare. At that time the government was aiming at a population of 100 million by 1960 (a large increase over the population of the time) and set up policies to encourage the realization of this goal. However, these policies were not successful before the war, and, after defeat at the hands of the Allied forces in 1945, they remained in the government lexicon of treasured hopes.

In July 1948, because of the very rapid growth in the population after the war, the Eugenics Law was established as a method of population control, and in August of the same year the pre-war policies in relation to guidance for pregnancy and baby health were revived. Owing to an extreme shortage of food, powdered milk was distributed through the work of the United Nations UNICEF organization. The occupation army also delivered canned and powdered milk for emergency use and, from 1947 on, skimmed milk from the USA was distributed through the school-lunch programme. From 1949 to 1950, while the USA was experiencing an economic depression, the surplus of milk produced in that country was exported to Japan, placing pressure on the domestic market and increasing the number of people who became dependent on milk as part of their daily food intake.

Table 3.1. Average Life-span, 1929-1940





Japan 1935-1936 46.92 49.63
UK 1936-1938 57.80 59.20
France 1933-1938 55.94 61.64
Sweden 1931-1940 63.76 66.13
USA 1929-1931 61.60 60.99

Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare, Iryo hyakunenshi, Annex: "Iryo tokei kara mite isei 100 nen no ayumi," p. 15.

Fig. 3.2. Changes in Birth- and Death-rates of Infants and Pregnant Mothers (after Ministry of Health and Welfare, Boshi eisei no omonaru tokei, 1959 and 1981).

From 1949, a "National Baby Contest" was organized under the auspices of the Ministry of Health and Welfare and the Yomiuri shimbun. The aim was to encourage baby health and the proper nutrition of children. The healthiest one-year-old boy and girl babies born between March of the previous year and February of the current year were to be chosen from babies throughout the country and named as the winners of the contest on 5 May, which is Children's Day.

The most difficult time in life for growth is the first few years. Whether a child will survive or not depends upon basic conditions such as the availability of plenty of breast-milk. Milk provided by a human mother contains protein, fat, sugar, inorganic minerals, vitamins, and small amounts of chemical elements which are essential to infant growth. Included also are antibodies to micro-organisms, produced by the mother's immune system, biological production mechanisms which result in conditions equal to pasteurization, and certain other antibodies. Natural human milk also protects infants against virus and bacterial infections of the digestive organs and the respiratory system. Artificial milk can in no manner provide this same range of protective functions.

However, the introduction and widespread use of artificial milk and the lowering of the infant mortality rate occurred at about the same time, and from this people inferred that the use of artificial milk had helped to lower the mortality rate. But the main reason for this decrease in infant deaths was related to the development of antibiotics. In reality, the infant death-rate is twice as high for artificially fed babies as it is for breast-fed ones, since human milk provides the most valuable nutrition that can be had, and also protects the new life against infectious diseases. Also, feeding the baby the natural way promotes greater human dignity, creating a bond between mother and child.

Human milk is produced through the mental stimulation invoked by the infant's crying and from the baby's sucking at the mother's breast. Because the newborn infant lacks sucking power, human milk is not produced immediately. It is therefore quite normal for a baby to lose a little weight soon after birth.

If, under these circumstances, the infant is given a bottle, satisfaction is immediate. The new baby then wants to suck on the bottle rather than at the mother's breast. Since it takes less time to bottle-feed a baby, and is more convenient - mothers and babies can be housed in separate rooms - hospital administrations intent on "rationalization" tend to favour this practice. Usually, bottle-fed babies increase in weight very rapidly at first, and look healthier because of this.

Table 3.2. Changes in the Labour Force 1947-1956 (unit: 1,000)


Labour force population (above age 14)





Total Population

Population above age 14







1947 77,810 52,960 33,580 20,920 12,660 32.870 20,440 12,430
1948 79,500 53.900 34,840 21,340 13,500 34.600 21,190 13,410
1949 81,300 54,850 36,440 21,840 14,610 36,060 21,610 14,460
1950 82.900 55.240 36,160 21,930 14,230 35.720 21,640 14,080
1951 84,330 56,260 36,600 22,130 14,480 36,220 21,890 14.330
1952 85,580 57.440 37,750 22,710 55,040 37,280 22,420 14,860
1953 86,780 58,310 39,700 23,480 16,220 39.250 23,220 16,020
1954 88,030 59,920 40.730 24,230 16,500 40,140 23,880 16.260
1955 89,110 61,280 42.190 24,790 17,39() 41,500 24,390 17,110
1956 90,060 62,660 42,910 25,260 17,650 42,280 24,910 17.370

Source: Ministry of Labour. Rodo tokei nennpo, 1952, p. 42; 1954. p. 25: 1957, p. 18.

The nationwide baby contest encouraged the use of bottle-milk, and the practice was also encouraged by gynaecologists, paediatricians, hospitals, and clinics. In 1951, the Morinaga Company initiated a baby contest for eight-month old infants and made a great deal of money from the endeavour. From 1953, NHK (Japan National Broadcasting Corporation) sponsored a baby contest which encouraged bottle-milk over breast-milk.

The increase in the number of working mothers after the Second World War (table 3.2) again encouraged the use of the bottle, because of its convenience. In 1920, 10 per cent of infants were fed on artificial milk, but by 1970 the percentage had risen to 70.

II. Expanding production of powdered milk and the Morinaga Milk Company

Powdered milk for infant consumption was first introduced in Japan during the Taisho Era (1912-1925), but before the Second World War it was mainly exported. It was only in the post-war period that artificial milk was improved in quality with the creation of milk production capital, the loosening of regulations related to milk products, the expansion of the milk product market, and the increase in raw materials for the production of milk.

Between 1950 and 1954, the production of major milk products - condensed milk, powdered milk, butter, and cheese - more than doubled (table 3.3). In 1951, the government published regulations for modified powdered infant milk products and all companies started to compete in expanding the market with new modified products utilizing new technologies such as vitamin and mineral reinforcement.

About this time each of the companies competing in the milk products field created their own trademark symbols upon which their involvement in the market was based. The Morinaga Company also competed with other small candy companies, putting out such things as caramels. The company's trademark, that of an angel, was very effective in forwarding corporate expansion plans. Table 3.4 indicates the fact that the trademark symbols used by the Yukijirushi and Meiji milk-product companies were very effective in expanding sales of butter.

Table 3.3. Increase in Value of Milk Products (Condensed/Powdered Milk. Butter, and Cheese) (unit: 1,000 yen)



1950 7,111
1951 10,069
1952 1,950
1953 13,659
1954 18,328

Source: T. Nakajima, Gendai nihon sangyo hattatsushi 18 shokuhin (Kojunsha Shuppankyoku, 1967), p. 312.

In the pre-Second World War period the Morinaga Company had set up baby health examinations in Tokyo and Osaka in co-operation with doctors and nurses, and these activities went down well with the public. The company used this involvement and co-operation with the medical profession in efforts to promote its products.

In 1952, with a decrease in the importation of milk products, the candy and milk producers competed for resource acquisition; the Yukijirushi Company, which was based in Hokkaido, extended its offices to Tokyo, and the Meiji and Morinaga people widened their net to include Hokkaido. This competition between companies resulted in an increase in milk product prices of 50 per cent.

However, the business boom did not last, and from 1954 to 1955 the sales of milk products decreased and the companies suffered from excess stock and an inability to pay off their debts on time. As a result they attempted to increase the demand for baby milk, and increased production to meet that demand (see table 3.5). During this period, Yukijirushi, Meiji, and Morinaga became the three prime milk-product producers, and by 1961 70 per cent of Japan's total domestic trade in milk products was under their control. Table 3.6 provides some indication of the sales and profits made by these companies. During this period, the Morinaga Company rose to first place in the baby-product field, and at the time of the arsenic milk incident it held 60 per cent of the total market in milk products for infants nationwide, and 65 per cent in the Kansai area.

Table 3.4. Changes in Capital of Five Major Dairy Product Companies, 1946- 1957 (unit: 1,000 yen)



Yukijirushi Nyugyo

Hokkaido Butter

Meiji Nyugyo

Morinaga Nyugyob

1946 30,000 - - - 10,000 -
1947 30,000 - - - 15,000 (6) -
1948 30,000 - - - 35,000 (6) -
1949 120,000(5)c - - - 105,000(11) 10,000 (4)
          70,000) (9)
1950 - 360,000 (6) 120,000 (6) 135,000 (10) 70,000
1951 - 360,000 120,000 145,000 (12) 150,000 (12)
1952 - 410.000 (10) 120,000 300,000 (1) 15(),000
1953 - 410,000 120,000 600,000 (12) 150,()00
1954 - 480,000(10) 120,000 600,000 465,000(1)
1955 - 480,000 120,000 600,000 465,000
1956 - 580,000 (4) 120,000 600,000 465,()00
1957 - 1,000.000 (1) 120,000 600,000 930,000 (7)

a. In June 1950, Hokuraku was divided into Yukijirushi Nyugyo and Hokkaido Butter.
b. In April 1949, Morinaga Nyugyo separated from Morinaga Shokuhin to become an independent company.
c. Figures in parentheses indicate the months when capital increase took place.

Source: T. Nakajima, Gendai nihon sangyo hattatsushi 18 shokuhin (Kojunsha Shuppankyoku, 1967), p. 311.

Table 3.5. Changes in Production of Modified Powdered Milk Products (unit: tons)


Modified powdered milkb

Total production of powdered milk


1943c - 6,087 6,087
1945 - 2,762 2,699
1950 2,058 12,332 11,828
1951 4,990 12,180 11,937
1952 5,144 8,678 8,587
1953 6,908 10,366 10,087
1964 10,755 14,963 14,547
1955d 10,545 12,711 12,598
1956 11,691 16,809 16,621
1957 13,752 21,425 21,242
1958 13,795 19,894 19,290
1959 18,529 25,036 24,346
1960 21,741 29,207 28,851
1961 26,098 34,566 35,329
1962 33,783 46,226 48,660
1963 37,558 52,148 52,859
1964 36,691 60,512 60,689
1965 48,788 75,642 76,282
1966 49,569 77,899 77,266
1967 52,192 81,554 85,544
1968 52,985 80,318 80,450
1969 59,292 90,020 89,282
1970 61,194 96,902 94,898
1971 65,106 101,702 96,171
1972 86,133 128,158 125,328
1973 92,801 128,059 129,663
1974 81,406 112,668 114,560
1975 69,991 92,664 92,213
1976 65,155 91,856 94,664
1977 60,754 87,881 88,330
1978 62,000 92,500 91,396

a. Production figures are taken from Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fishery statistics, except for figures for 1947-1949, which are based on surveys by Nihon Seirakugyo Kumiai and Shokuryohin Haikyuu Kodan.

b. Production figures of powdered infant milk before 1950 are included in total powdered milk production figures.

c The figure for 1943 represents the peak in pre-war production

d. The drop in production in 1955 is considered to reflect the recall of MF milk.

Source: Shadan Hojin Nihon Nyuuseihin Kyokai, Nihon nyuugyo nenkan (1980), p 140

Table 3.6. Changes in Sales and Earnings of Top Three Milk Product Manufacturers, 1958-1962 (unit: 1 million yen)


Yukijirushi Nyugyo

Meiji Nyugyo

Morinaga Nyugyo

Combined total

1958 19,889 16,111 14,405 50.405
1959 27,305 19,620 17,638 64.563
1960 31,335 23,064 22,783 77,182
1961 39,562 30,835 31,120 101,517
1962 49,242 40,737 39,318 129,297
1958 184 438 251 873
1959 306 475 251 1,199
1960 509 382 757 1,648
1961 611 475 585 1,671
1962 798 544 540 1,882
Sales/earnings ratio (%)        
1958 0.92 2.72 1.74 1.73
1959 1.12 2.42 2.37 1.86
1960 1.59 1.66 3.32 2.14
1961 1.54 1.54 1.88 1.65
1962 1.62 1.34 1.37 1.46

Source: T. Nakajima, Gendai nihon sangyo hattatsushi 18 shokuhin (Kojunsha Shuppankyoku, 1967), p. 317.

At that time these various companies were involved in management rationalization procedures in order to increase their profits, and in March 1955 2,000 schoolchildren suffered food poisoning from powdered skim milk produced by the Yukijirushi Company. The root cause of the poisonings was never made clear. The companies agreed among themselves to carry out independent researches into the cause and to institute independent programmes for product quality control and safety. It can be said that this problem represents the tip of the iceberg in relation to the difficulties attendant on management rationalization.

Profit-oriented production management coupled with mass-production techniques always results in deterioration of the product and reduces the safety levels. Mass production and transportation systems cause problems with increasing acid levels and losses in product freshness. Because of these factors, the Tokushima plant of the Morinaga Company added sodium phosphate to the milk products as a stabilization agent. Instead of the soda authorized by the Japan Pharmacy Bureau for purity, the company used an industrial grade material which was one-third the regular cost of the pharmaceutical grade additive. From April to July 1955, 380 kilograms of this industrial grade sodium phosphate, which also happened to contain arsenic, were added to milk products without being examined for purity or fitness for human consumption.

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