Rice farmers near Japan’s crippled Fukushima nuclear plant will impose radiation safety limits that will only clear grains with levels so low as to be virtually undetectable after government-set standards were viewed as too lenient, curbing sales.
Farmers now completing the harvest in areas affected by fallout from the nuclear station are struggling to find buyers amid doubts about cesium limits, which are less stringent than in livestock feed. No samples have been found exceeding the official limits.
A self-imposed, near-zero limit on radiation in rice may help spur sales from Fukushima, which was the fourth-largest producer in Japan last year, representing about 5 percent of the total harvest. The prefectural office of Zen-Noh, Japan’s biggest farmers group, plans to only ship cesium-free rice to address safety concerns, as does the National Confederation of Farmers Movements, which includes about 30,000 producers nationwide.
“We advise our members to test their rice for radiation and sell only if results show no cesium is detected,” said Yoshitaka Mashima, vice chairman of the confederation. The government has tried to “hide inconvenient information, which is deepening consumer distrust.”
The near-zero limit was set as very low levels of cesium are hard to detect. Testing equipment in Japan is unable to verify levels of cesium in food below 5 becquerels a kilogram, according to Mashima.
Japan set the maximum allowed level of cesium in food about a week after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, based on recommendations from the International Commission on Radiological Protection. The health ministry set the rice ceiling at 500 becquerels a kilogram, while the agriculture ministry’s limit for feed is 300 becquerels.
The agriculture ministry allowed rice planting in Fukushima and neighboring prefectures in April, excluding paddy fields containing more than 5,000 becquerels of cesium per kilogram.
Prefectural governments began approving farmers to ship their harvest if test results showed samples from their produce did not show cesium exceeding the limit.
Still, rice millers are concerned about buying new crops from areas near the plant as the current cesium standard, applied to brown rice, doesn’t ensure the safety of its by-products, including bran.
Cesium levels in rice bran, an ingredient used in Japanese compound feed for livestock, is about seven times as high as brown rice, said Ryo Kimura, the chairman of Japan Rice Millers and Distributors Cooperative. Because of this, feed makers are reluctant to buy bran made from brown rice that may contain more than 40 becquerels a kilogram of cesium, he said.
Brown rice is polished to produce milled rice for sale to retailers and by-products are shipped to makers of cooking oil, pickles and animal feed.
Demand for this year’s rice crop has also been weakened as consumers hoarded last year’s crop amid radiation concerns, Kimura said.
Domestic food-rice inventories, excluding the government’s reserve, fell 16 percent to a three-year low of 1.82 million metric tons in June as consumers boosted purchases after the disaster. The volume is equal to 22 percent of Japanese rice demand in the year ended June 30.
“Consumers who see the current cesium standard as lenient won’t buy rice from polluted areas,” said Nobuyuki Chino, president of Continental Rice Corp. in Tokyo. “Wholesalers are seeking rice that tested negative for cesium as they know grain containing radioactivity, even if the amount is smaller than the official standard, won’t sell well.”
Stockpiles may increase by more than 100,000 tons by next June because of a weak demand and a good harvest this year, dragging down prices, said Chino.
Low demand for rice harvested in eastern Japan, affected by radiation fallout from the Fukushima plant, is reflected in a price gap between Tokyo and Osaka grain exchanges, Chino said.
Rice for November delivery on the Tokyo Grain Exchange settled at 14,400 yen ($184) a bag on Oct. 12, 4 percent cheaper than the price on the Kansai Commodities Exchange in the western city of Osaka. The Kansai exchange trades rice produced in western Japan, while the Tokyo bourse handles rice grown in the east, including Fukushima prefecture.
The government has been slow to take measures to ease safety concerns as tighter regulation will boost costs for radiation testing, adding troubles to the nation struggling with swelling fiscal deficits, said Naoki Kazama, an upper-house lawmaker from the ruling Democratic Party of Japan.
Stricter control may also increase a ban on shipments of local farm products and cause shortages, sending producers out of business and boosting compensation payments by Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the Fukushima nuclear plant.
“The government should put a priority on protecting human health, especially of our children,” Kazama said in an interview in Tokyo. “Now they are paying consideration to the interests of various parties evenly.”
Kazama has proposed that all foods be tested for radioactive contamination and their radiation levels be labeled.
The health ministry, which rejected the proposal as unfeasible, plans to revise cesium standards in food in line with recommendations from the Food Safety Commission.
An expert panel on the commission compiled a report in July that said more than 100 millisieverts of cumulative effective doses of radiation over a lifetime could increase the risk of health effects in humans. The amount doesn’t include radiation from nature and medical exposure, it said.
The current Japanese standard is based on a proposal from the International Commission on Radiological Protection that humans should avoid radiation exposure exceeding 5 millisieverts a year through food and drink consumption in case of emergency.
Local authorities checked a total of 3,989 rice samples in 17 prefectures in the eastern half of Japan by Oct. 11, according to the agriculture ministry. The highest level of cesium, or 500 becquerels a kilogram, was detected in crop from Nihonmatsu city, about 55 kilometers (34 miles) from the Fukushima nuclear station.
Some food retailers and producers set voluntary ceilings for cesium on their products to alleviate consumer concerns.
Organic food supplier Radishbo-ya Co. in Tokyo set its cesium standard at 20 becquerels a kilogram for milk and water, and 50 becquerels for rice, meat, eggs and vegetables. These are 10 percent of the amounts allowed by the government.
“The government is very slow to take measures against contamination,” said Hiroshi Chikaato, quality director at Radishbo-ya. “That’s why consumer concerns about food safety persist. People who lost confidence in the safety of food produced in the nation’s east are only seeking food from the western areas.”