Japanese Swap Fish for Burgers, Soy Milk on Radiation Contamination Fears

Namiko Murata no longer gives her three children their favorite salmon, saury and mackerel for dinner.

“I’m really paying attention to food because of the radiation problems,” said Murata as she waited in line at a Tokyo supermarket. “We gave up eating fish even though my family likes it very much. Now, for protein, we drink three cups of soy milk a day.”

The detection of cobalt, iodine and cesium in the sea near the stricken Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant north of Tokyo this week hurt fish sales in the world’s second-biggest seafood market. Shoppers ignored reassurances their food and water were safe and countries from Australia to the U.S. restricted Japan food imports. The World Health Organization said fears of radioactive contamination may be unwarranted.

Ryoko Mizumoto, a 27-year-old mother of two, said she stopped buying dried Shirasu fish and horse mackerel. “I gave up buying maritime products and started buying cheap meat,” she said while waiting to buy bottled water at one of Seven & I Holdings Co.’s Ito-Yokado stores in Tokyo. “I make hamburger steak to replace the fish.”

Japan has restricted shipments of milk, spinach and other vegetables from Fukushima and neighboring prefectures as radiation from the plant, damaged on March 11 by the country’s strongest earthquake on record, contaminated agricultural products.

Bottled-Water Shortage

The country’s biggest beverage makers, with plants running at full capacity, face renewed pressure to raise bottled-water production as shoppers cleared store shelves following news that radiation contaminated Tokyo’s water supply. A Lawson Inc. (2651) convenience store in the capital last night had a sign saying customers could only buy one bottle of water each. Its shelves for water, juice and tea were empty.

“People simply don’t understand the safety issue,” Hisashi Ogawa, team leader for environmental health at the WHO said by phone today. “The perception of the general public is that so long as standard levels are exceeded, they feel it’s unsafe, and this is a misperception.”

Tolerable Levels

“At levels we observe today, food or water are safe to drink and eat, although standards were exceeded,” said Ogawa, who’s based in Manila and is in Tokyo to help the WHO coordinate with the Japanese government.

The health ministry has tentatively set tolerable levels of radioactivity. For fish, it’s 500 Becquerels per kilogram of radioactive cesium and 100 Becquerels per kilogram of uranium. Japan’s Food Safety Commission will assess the standards for possible revision as early as next week.

“We have not received any test results showing fish contaminated by more-than-acceptable levels of radioactivity,” said Taiju Abe at the health ministry’s inspection and safety division. “Prefectural governments are putting priority on testing vegetables as they are at the highest risk for contamination through the air and rain.”

Fishing in the northeastern prefectures of Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate has been halted since the earthquake and the ensuing tsunami that engulfed towns in northeastern Japan, damaged the Fukushima nuclear facility and shook buildings in Tokyo.

‘Not Enough Information’

The suspension lowered the risk that “tainted fish will be in the market,” said Yasuo Sasaki, senior press counselor at the agriculture ministry. “We don’t see fish at a high risk of contamination because of radiation dilution,”

Kazuko Nishihara said she isn’t convinced. “We don’t trust the government,” said the 41-year-old mother of two who left Tokyo for Hiroshima on March 18, where she said food is safe. “It hasn’t disclosed enough information. When we get back to Tokyo, I won’t eat vegetables produced in the Kanto region and will only eat fish from the western part of Japan.”

The Kanto region encompasses Tokyo and six prefectures, and contains about one-third of Japan’s 127 million people.

Japan consumes about 9 million metric tons of seafood a year, second behind China’s more than 1.3 billion people, according to the website of the Sea Around Us Project, a collaboration between the University of British Columbia and the Pew Environment Group. It’s the world’s largest fish importer, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

Few Customers

“We are worrying about the marine radiation contamination problem,” said 35-year-old Takashi Inoue, who works at Shoei Suisan, a wholesaler at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market. “Unlike vegetables, the source of production is quite vague.”

Susumu Takana, a 68-year-old worker at nearby fish wholesaler Harahide, said business has dropped by 40 percent since the earthquake.

“Our main customers are restaurants who say they have few customers at night,” he said. “Some clients have started to say they don’t want fish from north of Choshi,” near Tokyo.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said March 23 the government told regulators to implement maximum monitoring on seafood. Fukushima and neighboring prefectures Miyagi and Iwate produce 707,500 tons of seafood, accounting for 13 percent of Japan’s 5.6 million tons of annual production, according to Statistics Japan.

No Tourists

Maruha Nichiro Holdings Inc. (1334) which sells prawns, crabs, octopus and shrimp from both Japan and overseas, is getting more queries about where its produce is from, said Hiroyuki Metoki, a spokesman. Customers may continue to avoid food from Fukushima and nearby areas, he said.

“We may have to depend on products from other parts of Japan and imports,” Metoki said. Because imported fish is expensive, people may “have to switch some portion of their fish consumption to something else, such as meat,” he said.

Getting enough fish hasn’t been a problem for Yoshiaki Saito, president of fish wholesaler Saito Suisan. “Our sales have fallen to about one-fifth,” he said. “There is plenty of supply but there’s no demand.”

The decline in tourists is partly to blame, Saito said. “There are usually many customers from overseas,” such as Chinese who buy crabs, tuna and scallops, he said. “There are no tourists now.”

Saito said he hasn’t heard of any impact of radiation on fish. “Even if there is, it’s only a small amount. We can’t worry about every little problem or there won’t be anything left for us to eat.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Frederik Balfour in Hong Kong at fbalfour@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Frank Longid at flongid@bloomberg.net

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