Shoppers in Asia Shun Japanese Products on Radiation Concerns

Shoppers in Hong Kong, Singapore and Sydney are shunning Japanese food products in supermarkets amid concerns about radiation.

“Before the earthquake I bought Japanese food produce almost every day, especially Japanese onions, which are my favorite,” said Yuko Kojima, 40, as she searched the frozen food aisles of the APITA grocery and department store in Hong Kong. “Now I’m buying more food imported from Korea, Australia and New Zealand.”

Across Asia shoppers are questioning the safety of food from Japan after cobalt, iodine and cesium were found in the sea near the stricken Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant north of Tokyo. The shoppers, including Japanese living abroad, are taking their cue from governments that have started restricting food imports from Japan on fears of radioactive contamination.

For May Saito, a 36-year-old mother of two, concerns about radiation mean she’s scrutinizing the origin of food from Japan by reading labels more closely.

“These days I pay much more attention to the prefecture information on the package label,” the Tokyo native said as she selected a cabbage at APITA after examining a label on its packaging. “Last week I bought four packs of seaweed that will be good for a whole month. Usually I just buy two.”

Expat Shopping

Supermarkets throughout Asia catering to expatriates with everything from sweets to sauces, Japanese-grown rice and fizzy drinks are at the center of consumers’ concerns. For some shoppers, the fallout from the March 11 quake is yet to come.

“Most of the stuff that’s here now, they import at least a month in advance so at the moment, it’s fine,” said Chikako Airey, 46, as she browsed the shelves of the Tokyo Mart grocery store in Sydney’s northern suburbs. “In a month it may be different but I don’t think it will have a big impact.”

Singapore and Australia joined the U.S. and Hong Kong in restricting food imports from Japan this week. Singapore suspended imports of milk products, fruit and vegetables, meat and seafood from six prefectures. Authorities found radioactive contaminants in vegetables that were as much as three times higher than prescribed limits. Australia said it would place a “holding order” on some products from four prefectures.

“If I went to Japan I would worry about the food, but here it’s better,” Tokyo native Masayo Ochiai, 37, who has a five-year-old daughter and is expecting her second child, said at the Meidi-Ya Japanese supermarket in Singapore.

“Sometimes I choose Japanese food, but if it comes from Fukushima or Miyagi, I don’t want to buy it,” said Ochiai, who has lived in Singapore for four years. “The Japanese government said it’s safe, but I cannot believe it. I’m pregnant now, so want to be more careful about food.”

Dangerous Radiation

Dangerous radiation levels, fires and explosions at four of the six reactors at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant have hampered repair work since March 11 when Japan’s strongest-ever earthquake and the tsunami it triggered cut power at the plant. The number of deaths and missing following the quake had reached 27,509 as of 3 p.m. yesterday, according to the National Police Agency in Tokyo.

Japan has restricted shipments of milk, spinach and other vegetables from Fukushima and neighboring prefectures.

“I’m just getting some strawberries today,” said Reiko Toyama, 38, as she left the APITA store in Hong Kong. “I’ll be more concerned about leafy vegetables from certain areas in Japan and may shift to produce from Korea for a while.”

Japan’s health ministry asked prefectural governors last week to test agricultural and marine food products for possible contamination.

The ministry has tentatively set tolerable levels of radioactivity for each product. For fish, the level is set at 500 becquerels per kilogram of radioactive cesium and 100 becquerels per kilogram of uranium. Japan’s Food Safety Commission is assessing the standards for possible revision as early as the coming week.

‘Very Nervous’

Stores and restaurants across Asia have dropped Japanese food from shelves and menus after the nation’s government halted spinach shipments and told residents around the stricken nuclear plant not to drink tap water.

“I’m very nervous about the food problem after the earthquake,” said Kojima, who has a 10-year-old daughter and has lived in Hong Kong for a decade. “Two things will come to my mind now whenever I’m shopping for Japanese fresh food: which area is it from and how is it prepared?”

Japan exported 481 billion yen ($6 billion) of food last year, accounting for 0.7 percent of total exports, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries said on its website. 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.

“In future, I’ll look at the date (on packages) to see when they were made and would consider not buying if they were made after the earthquake,” said Margharita Sumberac, 69, as she shopped at Sydney’s Tokyo Mart with her daughter, Tanya.

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