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Food Safety Fears Grow in Japan on Skepticism at Radiation Testing Regime

Kimie Nozaki, a mother of three children living 60 kilometers from the crippled Fukushima nuclear reactors, said she doesn’t trust the government’s testing program for radiation-contaminated food.

“Information from the government lacks detail, which makes me even more nervous,” said Nozaki, 43, who lives in Fukushima city about 35 miles from the plant that’s been emitting radiation since March 11 in the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

Three months after an earthquake and tsunami crippled the plant, Japan doesn’t appear to have a comprehensive food-testing regime, said Peter Burns, the former chairman of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation. Prolonged exposure to radiation in the air, ground and food can cause leukemia and other cancers, according to the London-based World Nuclear Association.

“My impression is the monitoring has been a bit piecemeal,” Burns said by phone from his home in Melbourne on June 14. “The Japanese are usually highly motivated and organized to implement such systems, so I would think they will get there, but certainly what I’ve seen to date hasn’t been awe- inspiring.”

Products including spinach, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, tea, milk, plums and fish have been found to be contaminated with cesium and iodine as far as 360 kilometers from the station. Contamination was detected in 347 food samples from eight prefectures by June 9, according to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare.

Hot Spots

The government said today it will support evacuating residents in areas showing high levels of radiation that are out of a 20-kilometer evacuation zone from the crippled station. Some areas of the cities of Minami Soma and Date, both in Fukushima prefecture, are radiation hot spots, Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s office said in a statement. The government is still identifying areas that might be recommended for evacuation, the statement said.

Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the Fukushima plant, said on June 14 it found cesium in milk tested near another nuclear plant about 210 kilometers from the damaged station. The samples were taken on May 12.

The concern this year will be radiation that landed on crops, which will be absorbed directly, Burns said. Next year it’ll be radiation in the soil.

Voluntary Testing

“Once you get past this year you’ll be measuring what’s in the soil and then what’s taken up by vegetables. A decade is probably about the sort of time you’re going to need it,” he said in reference to the tests.

“The main thing here is restoring confidence in the food supply. If people don’t have confidence in the food supply, that can cause as many problems as the reality.”

In the past three months, more than 4,850 samples from 22 prefectures were tested for radiation.

The voluntary tests are conducted by prefectural governments in cooperation with local farmers, said Taku Ohara, an official in the ministry’s inspection and safety division. There’s no centralized checking system and many small farms aren’t tested, he said.

“It’s difficult to take test samples from all farms because there are too many,” he said. “We have asked local governments to cover each of the farming regions and monitor them evenly.” As of Feb. 1, 2010, there were 1.68 million farms in Japan, according to the agriculture ministry.

Resuming Sales

Restrictions have been imposed on food shipments from Fukushima, Shizuoka, Tochigi, Gunma, Ibaraki, Chiba and Kanagawa, the last three of which are adjacent to Tokyo.

Shipments of some green tea, a beverage at the heart of Japanese culture, have been halted in four prefectures.

Ito En Ltd. (2593), Japan’s biggest producer of green tea drinks, hasn’t seen a decline in sales since the discovery of tainted leaves, spokesman Ikuo Sato said by phone.

Sales of products were allowed to resume after the results of three consecutive tests showed radiation levels were below the government standard, Ohara said.

Rice may be the next produce to show signs of contamination, because the government allowed most farmers in Fukushima prefecture to plant the grain after testing a limited number of soil samples, said Junichi Sato, an executive at Greenpeace in Japan.

Questionable Limits

The government tested about 150 samples from farmland near the nuclear plant before deciding on areas where rice sowing is now banned. The affected areas cover about 8,000 hectares (19,800 acres) causing a 40,000 metric ton loss in rice production this year, according to the agriculture ministry.

Fukushima, Japan’s fourth-biggest rice grower, produced 439,100 tons of paddy rice last year, accounting for 5.3 percent of the nation’s total output. Agriculture, fisheries and forestry accounted for about 2 percent of Japan’s 520 trillion yen economy in 2009.

For vegetables, Japan sets a limit at 2,000 becquerels of iodine per kilogram, and 500 becquerels of cesium a kilogram.

The validity of the limits is questionable, according to Professor Tomoya Yamauchi, who specializes in radiation physics at Kobe University.

“I don’t see an effort to properly monitor things,” he said in a phone interview.

Thyroid Monitoring

On June 6, Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said the plant released about 770,000 tera becquerels of radioactive material into the air between March 11 and March 16, doubling an earlier estimate.

That’s about 14 percent of the radiation emitted in the Chernobyl disaster in modern-day Ukraine. Tokyo Electric has pledged to give an updated figure of the accumulated radiation discharge from Fukushima.

About 2 million people in Ukraine are under permanent medical monitoring, 25 years after the accident, according to the nation’s embassy in Tokyo.

While 203 people were hospitalized and 31 died after the explosion at Chernobyl, about 400,000 children are considered to have received significant doses of radiation to their thyroid that merit monitoring, the embassy said.

Local Products

Cases of thyroid cancer in Belarus, which neighbors Ukraine, increased for at least 10 years after 1986 in children younger than 14 and for almost 20 years among 20-24 year olds, according to research by Shunichi Yamashita of Nagasaki University, who was appointed as an adviser to Fukushima prefecture on radiation exposure.

Japan needs to improve its testing regime and use the more sophisticated becquerel monitors that were used by European governments after Chernobyl, Sato said.

“I don’t want to give my son local farm products, especially daily necessities such as milk and rice,” Hiromi Murakami, the mother of a 10-year-old boy in Fukushima city, said in an interview.

Japan’s exports of agricultural products fell 19 percent to 21.4 billion yen in April from a year earlier, while exports of marine products dropped 12 percent to 15 billion yen, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Powdered milk exports dropped by 87 percent.

Reduce Risk

At the same time, food imports have risen. Agricultural products from overseas increased by 19 percent to 519 billion yen in April, according to the ministry.

It’s not just what’s in the ground that’s a concern. Atmospheric radiation levels in Fukushima prefecture remain high, according to Greenpeace, which says residents of the prefecture are getting an annual exposure of 10-20 millisieverts, not including food. The government has set a radiation exposure limit for the general public of 20 millisieverts a year.

“We receive lots of radiation every day through the air, so we want to reduce the risk from food as much as possible,” Murakami said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Aya Takada in Tokyo at atakada2@bloomberg.net; Yasumasa Song in Tokyo at ysong9@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Langan at plangan@bloomberg.net

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