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Health Care

Itochu and Kowa to recall masks after defects in Japan handout

The two companies said they procured the products from overseas

Masked faces at a Tokyo train station: Distributing the protective gear to every household was an early step in the Japanese government's nationwide response to the coronavirus outbreak.   © Reuters

TOKYO (KYODO) -- Two Japanese companies said Thursday they are recalling all undelivered cloth masks they supplied under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's mask handout program to address the novel coronavirus pandemic following numerous complaints of tainted products earlier this month.

Trading house Itochu Corp. and pharmaceutical and medical equipment maker Kowa Co. said they have also found similar problems with masks still in their inventories.

Itochu and Kowa are among the four companies tapped to provide face masks to pregnant women and general households under Abe's initiative, which aims to give each household two cloth masks amid shortages due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The two companies said they procured the cloth masks from overseas and will strengthen quality-control measures to prevent a similar problem from recurring.

Itochu explained in a statement released Thursday that the government, after failing to secure the necessary quantity of masks from domestic manufacturers, had expanded its call for help to companies other than mask producers.

"We also received a strong request as part of these efforts. We decided to respond because it is a state emergency and doing so will help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus," the company said.

The Nagoya-based Kowa said in a separate press release, "We have facilitated the emergency production of cloth masks through cooperative overseas factories, mainly in China, at the request of the government."

On April 14, ahead of the deliveries to general households, the health ministry started distributing around 500,000 cloth masks to pregnant women through handouts at municipal offices and by shipping them to medical and nursing facilities.

But the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare was soon flooded with complaints about tainted masks, including those with human hairs.

Health minister Katsunobu Kato told a press conference on Tuesday that the ministry confirmed 7,870 defective masks had been delivered to 143 municipalities. The ministry also suspended deliveries the same day.

Deliveries of cloth masks to ordinary households started on April 17 in Tokyo, with the government aiming for distribution to some 50 million households across the country by the end of May.

The mask handout initiative has drawn derision on social media, earning the nickname "Abenomask," a pun on Abe's "Abenomics" economic policy mix.

The policy has also been met with skepticism in foreign media due to its hefty cost of 46.6 billion yen ($430 million) despite the relative ineffectiveness of cloth masks in preventing coronavirus infection.

The program is part of the government's emergency economic package worth over 100 trillion yen, designed to support the economy through the coronavirus outbreak.

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