Japan’s government said it can’t rule out the possibility beef contaminated with radioactive material has been exported, as consumers and lawmakers accused authorities of negligence on food safety.
The government yesterday imposed a ban on beef shipments from areas near the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant after finding 637 cattle were fed hay containing radioactive cesium. Supermarkets including Japan’s biggest, Aeon Co., said the beef was sold in Tokyo and other cities.
“We cannot completely rule out the possibility” contaminated beef was also sold abroad, Yuichi Imasaki, the deputy director of the farm ministry’s meat and egg division said by phone today. “The chances are very low” because most countries have tightened rules on Japanese beef imports or banned them, he said.
The ban comes more than four months after the earthquake and tsunami wrecked the Fukushima Dai-Ichi power station causing the worst nuclear fallout since Chernobyl. Concerns about food contamination before yesterday’s ban cut beef exports by 16 percent in the last two months, while hotels and restaurants in the region, including Shangri-La Asia’s luxury chain dropped Japanese seafood from their menu.
“There has to be at least an independent investigation regarding the level of contamination to farming,” said Chris Busby, a visiting professor at the University of Ulster’s school of biomedical sciences and scientific secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Risk, a think-tank.
Busby is due to speak to Japanese lawmakers later today and has been testing radiation levels in Fukushima prefecture north of Tokyo and other areas.
Tainted hay was given to cattle in 19 farms in Fukushima, Niigata and Yamagata prefectures. Twelve 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 was sold to consumers, said Kazuyuki Hashimoto, an official at the food-monitoring division of the Tokyo metropolitan government. Aeon, Seven & I Holdings Co., and Marui Group said this week they had sold the tainted beef.
Seven & I traced back the origin of the beef it sold after the government announced the cattle contamination this week, spokesman Hiroyuki Hanamitsu said today by phone.
U.S. Import Ban
The U.S. has not allowed beef imports from Japan since April, 21, 2010, because of the possibility they may harbor foot-and-mouth disease, Matt Herrick, a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture, said today in an e-mail.
The danger from less-than-rigorous testing of produce leads to contaminated products on supermarket shelves and that creates a lack of confidence in all products, said Peter Burns, a nuclear physicist and former Australian representative on the United Nation’s scientific committee on atomic radiation.
“Like with Chernobyl, you don’t have people buying anything from Ukraine because it might be contaminated,” he said. “I would have thought that within two or three months they would have formed some sort of task force who has somebody in charge,” Burns, who has 40 years of radiation safety experience, said.
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., the operator of the stricken station, said on June 14 it found cesium in milk tested near another nuclear reactor site about 210 kilometers from the damaged plant.
“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.”
About 437 kilograms (963 pounds) of beef from a farm in Minami-Soma city, 30 kilometers from the 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.
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.
For people who have eaten the beef, “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.
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. Vietnam, Hong Kong and the U.S. were the biggest markets for Japanese beef in the year through March 2010.
“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 Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare’s food safety department.
Japan imported 204,543 tons of beef in the five months ended May 31, an increase of 11 percent from the same period last year, according to the agriculture ministry.