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Japan May Face Tea Shortage as Radiation Spurs Shipment Halt

Green Tea Sits On Display
Japan may face a shortage of green tea as radiation leaking from the crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi power station tainted leaves, spurring the government to restrict shipments from four prefectures. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Japan may face a shortage of green tea as radiation leaking from the crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi power station tainted leaves, spurring the government to restrict shipments from four prefectures.

The government decided yesterday to curb shipments of dried tea leaves containing more than 500 becquerel per kilogram of radioactive cesium and ordered a halt in shipments from the eastern prefectures of Ibaraki, Chiba, Kanagawa and Tochigi where tainted produce was detected. Japan’s tea production, including fresh and dried leaves, was worth 102.1 billion yen ($1.3 billion) in 2009, according to the agriculture ministry.

The decision came after Shizuoka prefecture, Japan’s largest growing region representing about 40 percent of total output, declared its green tea was safe. Governor Heita Kawakatsu said last month tests on fresh leaves and drinks showed they contained cesium amounts well below the government levels. Still, cesium levels in dried leaves could be about five times higher than fresh leaves, said Yasuo Sasaki, senior press counselor at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

“The new regulation may spur shipment restrictions from Shizuoka prefecture, slashing supplies and boosting prices of green teas,” Sasaki said today in a telephone interview. “Higher prices could spur consumers to shift from green tea to cheaper alternatives such as barley tea or oolong tea.”

The government also asked each prefectural governor to test dried tea leaves for radioactive contamination.

Shizuoka prefecture, west of Tokyo, produced 33,400 metric tons of dried green tea in the year ended March 31, accounting for 39.3 percent of the nation’s total production. The southern prefecture of Kagoshima is the second-largest grower, producing 24,600 tons, according to the ministry.

Cookies, Ice Cream

One of the test results showed fresh tea leaves from Izu city in the prefecture contained 98 becquerel of cesium per kilogram, according to the Shizuoka website.

The government made the decision because green tea is also processed into seasoning for various food products including cookies and ice cream, said Taku Ohara at the inspection and safety division of the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare.

“As dried tea leaves could be consumed directly by humans, we need to test them and ban sales of tainted products,” he said today by phone.

“We have not tested dried tea leaves as they are used in the middle of tea processing and are not a finished product. We have tested fresh tea leaves and tea drinks,” said Toshiyuki Aoki, assistant director at the office of tea and agricultural production at the Shizuoka prefectural government. “We would like to decide how to respond through discussion with government officials.”

Drink makers such as Ito En Ltd. purchase Japanese green tea as a raw material. The company’s shares lost 2.6 percent to 1,370 yen today on the Tokyo Stock Exchange.

Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the crippled nuclear plant, aims to meet a deadline to stabilize reactors at the station within six to nine months, Junichi Matsumoto, an official for the power utility, said on May 30.

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