Sushi restaurants are dropping Japanese fresh food from their menus as a radiation plume released by a damaged nuclear plant in the country heightens fears over possible radioactive contamination.
“Our guests’ safety is our top priority,” said Sari Yong, a spokeswoman for Shangri-La Asia Ltd., the region’s biggest luxury hotel company by market value with 71 locations worldwide. “As a precaution, we have temporarily stopped importing fresh food from Japan.”
The Mandarin Oriental International Ltd.’s flagship in Hong Kong and the city’s Four Seasons Hotel have stopped buying food from Japan even as experts including chemical pathology professor Lam Ching-wan say the health risks haven’t been established. The U.S. and U.K. governments are among those that have advised citizens to consider leaving Japan as concerns mounted that authorities were losing the battle to contain leaks from the quake-stricken nuclear plant north of Tokyo.
“Until the situation stabilizes in the country, it seems unlikely that guests will feel comfortable consuming Japanese produce,” said Sally De Souza, public relations manager for the Mandarin Oriental hotel group.
Power may be restored to one of the crippled reactors at the damaged Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant today, improving the odds that workers can prevent a meltdown and further radiation leaks.
Japanese soldiers and firefighters from Tokyo, using 30 fire engines, began dousing sea water on reactor No. 3, site of an explosion earlier this week. Tokyo Electric Power Co. said it may finish reconnecting a power line to the cooling system of the No. 2 reactor. The power link would be used to restart pumps needed to pour cooling water on overheating fuel rods.
Concerns about radiation levels in food have prompted South Korea, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, India, Singapore and the Philippines to screen food imports from Japan. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is monitoring Japanese food for contamination and weighing steps that “may include increased and targeted product sampling,” it said in an e-mail.
Authorities aren’t taking any chances even as public fears of risks from eating contaminated fish may be overdone, say experts.
“These are more like a precaution than a decision based on fact,” said Lam Ching-wan, a professor of Chemical Pathology at the University of Hong Kong. “I think eating food or fish from Japan is unlikely to lead to cancer,” he said.
Japan will start testing of agricultural and marine food products as early as today for possible contamination by radioactivity, Kumiko Tanaka, an official at the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare’s policy planning and communication division, said today.
Foods required for testing include grains, milk, vegetables, meat and eggs, she said.
After the 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, people developed thyroid cancer after consuming milk from contaminated cows. The likelihood of fish absorbing sufficiently large quantities of radioactivity from the ocean is “negligible,” Lam said, except among larger fish who live long enough to accumulate large amounts.
At Chernobyl, the source of radioactivity came from the soil while in the ocean the radioactive dust particles are diluted, he said.
P.C. Kesavan, a former director of the biomedical group at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai, agrees the risks are small.
“The amount of contaminated fish and others will be a small proportion,” he said. “But you don’t know which one is contaminated and which one is not. So the precautionary principle is to ban all fish coming from there.”
The reluctance to buy seafood from Japan is affecting the nation’s fish traders, who are already suffering from the damage caused by the March 11 earthquake and the ensuing tsunami.
“We are not selling anything because there are no customers,” says Kengo Kumamoto, a 30-year-old worker at wholesaler Miyake Fisheries at the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo.
Yoshikatsu Ikuta said the wholesale fish shop he runs at the same market has seen sales fall. "Sales to restaurants are completely down, and they’re all doing badly."
Japan exported 195 billion yen ($2.4 billion) worth of seafood last year, accounting for 0.3 percent of total exports, according to data on the website of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
Tokyo Sushi Bars
Sushi bars in Tokyo are also suffering. The normally busy Tsukiji Sushi Ichiban restaurant, located next to the wholesale fish market, was empty yesterday afternoon.
“We had a lot of customers until last Friday,” said 59-year-old sushi chef Shinichi Niiyama. “Sales are really falling, we’ve probably lost about 70 percent, and a lot of it is from the lack of tourists.”
The Four Seasons Hotels Inc.’s Hong Kong hotel suspended all imports of Japanese food, including Wagyu beef, sea scallops and abalone, and substituted them with products from New Zealand and Australia, Claire Blackshaw, director of public relations, said in a phone interview yesterday.
The Hong Kong government has been conducting tests for radiation levels on all food imported from Japan since March 12 and gives daily updates of food safety on a website.
The Centre for Food Safety (CFS) of the Hong Kong Food and Environmental Hygiene Department has found all 86 shipments of food from Japan, including meat, seafood, fruits, vegetables and cereals, were safe after testing them for radiation levels, according to the website updated at 2 p.m. Hong Kong time yesterday.
Seafood From Scotland
The Zuma restaurant chain’s Hong Kong branch is substituting most of its imported Japanese products with seafood from Scotland and Indonesia, General Manager Christian Talpo said.
“We are not married to any supplier and have the flexibility to switch on a dime,” Talpo said.
London’s Zuma and Roka restaurants have stopped buying fresh food directly from Japan.
“Our priority is not only in ensuring the safety and integrity of the produce to our customers, but also to be sympathetic to food leaving a country whose population is in crisis,” Monica Brown, a spokeswoman for Zuma and Roka restaurants in the UK, said in an e-mail.
Japanese chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa’s NOBU Intercontinental Hong Kong restaurant has asked all its Japanese suppliers to provide certificates of origin showing that the products don’t come from affected areas in Japan, said Carole Klein, head of public relations at the Intercontinental Hotel.
Klein quoted Matsuhisa as saying that his other restaurants in the U.S., U.K. and Australia bought most of their ingredients locally and relied on local food and environmental authorities to monitor the quality of imports.