Beef cattle shipments from areas near Japan’s stricken Fukushima nuclear plant were banned as consumers and lawmakers accused the government of negligence after more cows were found contaminated with radiation.
Authorities discovered 637 cattle that had been fed hay tainted with radioactive cesium and sent to market from farms in prefectures including Fukushima, Masahiro Seki, an official at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries’ livestock and feed division, said in an interview yesterday.
Four months after an earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima Dai-Ichi power station causing the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said yesterday the government halted all shipments of cattle from the area. Aeon Co., Japan’s biggest supermarket chain, said July 16 it had sold beef from cattle tainted by radiation at 14 of its stores in Tokyo and four other prefectures.
“This government completely lacks risk-management ability,” Tsutomu Takebe, a former agriculture minister and opposition Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker, told parliament yesterday. “It’s already four months, and what have you done?”
Tainted hay was given to cattle in 19 farms in the northern prefectures of Fukushima, Niigata and Yamagata. The animals were sent to slaughter houses in prefectures including Tokyo, Saitama, and Chiba, and 12 cases of beef contamination were detected in eight prefectures, according to a statement from the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare.
Some beef from the 637 cattle contained cesium exceeding government standards and were sold to consumers, said Kazuyuki Hashimoto, an official at the food-monitoring division of the Tokyo metropolitan government.
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 (225 miles) from Dai-Ichi. Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the stricken station, said June 14 it found cesium in milk tested near another nuclear reactor site about 210 kilometers from the damaged plant.
The utility vowed to remove used uranium rods from Dai-Ichi, where they are stored at the bottom of water pools, within three years, Tokyo Electric told reporters yesterday. No schedule for removing the fuel that melted inside reactors or their decommissioning was announced. Tokyo Electric doesn’t have a figure for the total volume of radioactive material that’s leaked from the plant, Junichi Matsumoto, a general manager at the company, said yesterday.
So far, Tokyo Electric said it’s succeeded in getting the reactors cool, preventing more hydrogen explosions and reducing the amount of radiation being emitted, as per its initial target set out in its road map in April.
“The contamination occurred because the government did not take appropriate measures,” Yoko Tomiyama, chairwoman of the Consumers Union of Japan, said in a telephone interview yesterday. “They should take responsibility for their negligence.”
Greenpeace called on Japan to institute a “widespread, systematic and transparent farm produce and seafood monitoring” to avoid further exposure from contaminated food, even in areas seemingly far from the nuclear station, the environmental group said yesterday in an e-mailed statement.
Agriculture Minister Michihiko Kano told reporters in Tokyo on July 15 that “it was beyond imagination” that straw was collected from rice fields after the March disaster as rice farmers typically finish collecting straw by the end of harvest in the autumn.
“I would have thought that within two or three months they would have formed some sort of task force who has somebody in overall control and who knows what the overall situation is,” said Peter Burns, a nuclear physicist and former Australian representative on the United Nation’s scientific committee on atomic radiation. “Otherwise you end up with these sorts of things leaking through.”
About 437 kilograms (963 pounds) of beef from a farm in Minami-Soma city, 30 kilometers from the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear station, was consumed in eight prefectures, according to the Tokyo metropolitan government, which detected the first case of tainted beef from the farm earlier this month.
If issues like this aren’t tackled thoroughly from the beginning it shakes confidence, said Burns, who has 40 years of radiation safety experience. “Like with Chernobyl, you don’t have people buying anything from Ukraine because it might be contaminated,” he said.
As much as 2,300 becquerels of cesium a kilogram was detected in the contaminated beef, according to the July 18 statement from the health ministry. The government limit is 500 becquerels per kilogram. Rice hay produced in Fukushima prefecture was found to contain as much as 690,000 becquerels, exceeding the 300-becquerel limit, according to the local government office.
The government should start testing all cattle for contamination immediately as it is necessary to restore consumer confidence, the Liberal Democratic Party’s Takebe said.
Still, “the overall long-term implications of this are extremely minor as far as any potential harmful health effects,” said Burns. Though the reputational damage can end up “destroying whole industries,” he said.
Fukushima is the 10th biggest cattle-producing region in Japan, representing 2.7 percent of the total. The nation exported 541 metric tons of beef worth 3.4 billion yen ($42.8 million) last year, including premium wagyu meat.
As to whether some contaminated beef may have been exported, “we cannot rule out the possibility completely,” said Yuichi Imasaki, a deputy director of the meat and egg division at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Still, “the chances are very low” as most countries imposed strict rules and some even banned beef imports from some areas right after the earthquake and tsunami crippled the nuclear plant, Imasaki said.
Japan exported 49.1 tons of beef in May, 50.6 tons in April and 58.6 tons in March, according to the farm ministry’s data. “We are currently tracking all beef shipped from Fukushima prefecture. So far we’ve found no case of contaminated beef exports,” said Tomohiro Hagiya, an official at the inspection and safety division of the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare’s food safety department.
Japan imported 204,543 tons of beef in the five months ended May 31, rising 11 percent from the same period last year, according to the agriculture ministry.