Radiation Concern Prompts Aeon to Test Beef for Cesium Level

Radiation Concern Prompts Aeon to Test Beef for Cesium Level
An employee displays packages of beef at an Aeon Co. supermarket in Tokyo. Photographer: Haruyoshi Yamaguchi/Bloomberg

Concern that nuclear radiation fallout is contaminating meat prompted Aeon Co., owner of Japan’s biggest supermarket chain, to start testing beef for cancer-causing substances.

Aeon will start selling beef today in Tokyo stores tested by an independent laboratory to be within safe limits for radioactive cesium, it said in a statement. The heightened surveillance may boost confidence in the safety of beef after agriculture officials said July 26 that 2,906 cattle ate tainted feed, potentially leading to contaminated meat.

Prolonged exposure to radiation in the air, ground and food can cause leukemia and other cancers, according to the London-based World Nuclear Association. Japanese consumers have spurned beef, causing prices to slump, after meat exceeding cesium safety limits was found in supermarkets -- adding to evidence that fallout from Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s crippled Fukushima nuclear plant has entered the food chain.

“No matter what it takes and how much it costs, we have to check all the beef to remove consumer fears,” Shohei Murai, an Aeon senior executive, told reporters in Tokyo yesterday.

The retail market in Japan for meat and meat products grew 7 percent in the past decade to 5.9 trillion yen ($76 billion) in 2010, according to London-based Euromonitor International.

Topvalu Beef

The tested Wagyu beef products, sold under Aeon’s Topvalu brand, will be stocked in 115 supermarkets in and around Tokyo before being made available nationwide, the retailer said. Topvalu accounts for 60 percent of Aeon’s domestic beef products, and the company will ensure its other domestically produced beef is tested after September, said Yasuhide Chikazawa, a corporate officer at Aeon.

“Aeon is a very savvy company,” Melanie Brock, the Tokyo-based regional manager for trade group Meat and Livestock Australia, said in a telephone interview today. “Their decision to test all beef, I think, is likely to be the way forward” for other sellers, said Brock, who also chairs the Australian and New Zealand Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

Nippon Meat Packers Inc., Japan’s biggest meat processor, is considering measures around cattle inspections, Kohei Akiyama, a company spokesman, said in a phone interview today.

“We are asking our business partners to test all the beef produced across Japan for cesium, regardless of the region in which it was produced and the kind of cattle it’s from, and we have been doing this gradually since July 22,” Nagatoshi Nii, a spokesman for Seven & I Holdings Co., Japan’s biggest retailer and operator of the Ito-Yokado supermarket chain, said in a telephone interview yesterday.

Cattle Ban

Japan asked Miyagi prefecture to stop the movement of beef cattle from the area after cesium was found in beef sourced from the region, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said today. Miyagi was one of the prefectures worst affected by the March 11 tsunami that led to the meltdown at the Fukushima facility.

Tochigi prefecture, north of Tokyo, will check all beef exported from the area for radioactive materials, Kyodo News reported today without citing anyone.

Aeon, based in Chiba, near Tokyo, has contracts with 1,500 farmers across the country supplying its Topvalu Wagyu. Half the farms are on the southern tip of Japan’s southern island of Kyushu, more than 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) from the Fukushima plant. Aeon said it controls what cattle used for Topvalu Wagyu products eat and drink.

Under the retailer’s testing program, 1-kilogram (2-pound) samples are taken from each cattle carcass and sent to one of five laboratories in Japan for testing to confirm the meat doesn’t contain levels of cesium 134 and 137 exceeding government safety standards.

Aeon aims to double its offering of Topvalu Wagyu products, which it plans to sell in its 1,000 outlets by August, according to the company’s statement. It will also increase imports of beef from the Australian island-state of Tasmania by 30 percent to 50 percent, and sell the products under the Topvalu brand, Aeon said.

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