Japan May Curb Food Shipments From Areas Near Nuclear Plant Contamination

Japan’s government will decide today whether to limit the sale of produce from the country’s northeast after some food from near a crippled nuclear power station was found to have elevated radiation levels.

Spinach and milk samples were found to have higher-than- normal radiation “but not at levels harmful to human health,” Yukio Edano, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, said at a news briefing in Tokyo yesterday. “We’ll decide Monday whether we need to restrict intake in some areas and limit distribution.”

Temperatures at all six spent fuel storage pools at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear complex are below boiling point, indicating that dousing efforts to cool the used fuel rods may be working. Using a helicopter fitted with infrared equipment, officials determined that the pools atop the plant’s six reactors were below 100 degrees centigrade (212 Fahrenheit), Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said last night.

Higher-than-normal levels of radiation were found in milk in four different locations in Fukushima prefecture and in spinach in neighboring Ibaraki prefecture, Edano said.

He didn’t provide details on the radiation found in the food in the two prefectures near the plant, saying only that no milk had been shipped from affected areas. He didn’t specify what the government considered to be safe levels.

Tap Water

Radiation detected in spinach was 12 times the regulatory limit, Kyodo News said, citing an unidentified official from Ibaraki prefecture. Residents of the town of Iitate in Fukushima prefecture were asked to refrain from drinking tap water because of the presence of radioactive iodine, Kyodo News said.

Samples of tap water taken March 18 in Tokyo and five nearby prefectures showed traces of radiation that were within acceptable levels, the Japanese government said.

The government would “increase monitoring” of tap water and that so far “there’s no information that we need to take special measures,” Edano said.

Japan’s death toll from the March 11 quake and tsunami rose to 8,450 as of 9 p.m. yesterday, with a further 12,931 people missing, according to the National Police Agency in Tokyo. Prime Minister Naoto Kan canceled a planned visit to the earthquake zone today because rain forecasts present problems for helicopter landings, Kyodo News reported.

Supplies of food, water and other essentials are increasing, with about 118,000 emergency personnel on the ground, said Kirsten Mildren, a spokeswoman in Japan for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Winds, Rain

Shifting winds followed by rain will carry radiation inland and deposit radionuclides on the ground, said Austria’s Meteorological and Geophysics Center yesterday.

The center made the forecast using radionuclide data from the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty Organization. Maps on the center’s website show radionuclides moving south toward Tokyo.

In the absence of specific data on contamination levels, the supply of milk and food should be “frozen” from areas near the plant, Peter Burns, former chief executive officer of the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, said in a phone interview from Melbourne.

Based on the amount of nuclear fallout known to have been released from the plant so far, the risk to the population from radiation getting into the food supply is “several orders of magnitude below Chernobyl,” he said.

Contamination Tests

Officials in Japan’s 47 prefectures have been asked to test agricultural products, seafood and drinking water for possible contamination to prevent tainted grains, milk, vegetables, meat and eggs from being consumed, Kumiko Tanaka, an official at the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, said March 18.

Ibaraki prefecture also produces cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, strawberries and pears. Fukushima produces cucumbers, tomatoes and string beans.

Airborne radioactive particles could have landed on spinach and been absorbed by the leaves, Burns said. Milk may have been contaminated within days as the time between a cow eating grass, digesting it and secreting milk is extremely short, he said.

Taiwan detected “unharmful” levels of radioactivity on a shipment of fava beans from Japan, Shieh Der-Jhy, deputy minister of the Atomic Energy Council, said by phone yesterday.

The shipment was “within allowable levels” of radiation, Shieh said. Four shipments of vegetables imported from Japan in the past 24 hours were found to have “acceptable” levels of radiation by Hong Kong’s Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, Gabriel Leung, undersecretary for Food and Health in Hong Kong, told reporters. They didn’t include spinach, he said.

Shrimp, Squid

Thai imports of Japanese fish, shells, shrimp and squid since March 15 contained no radioactive contamination, the Bangkok Post reported, citing Pipat Yingseri, secretary-general of the Thai Food and Drug Administration.

Japan exported 481 billion yen ($6 billion) worth of food last year, accounting for 0.7 percent of total exports, according to data on the website of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. In 2009, more than 70 percent of Japan’s food exports went to Hong Kong, the U.S., China, Taiwan and South Korea, according to the Japan External Trade Organization.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Frederik Balfour at fbalfou@bloomberg.net

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