Japan slow to close door on nuclear
food By Christopher Johnson
TOKYO - Somehow, when much of the world
was worried about nuclear fallout from Japan, it
never occurred to thousands of farmers and
government officials that radioactive particles
spewing into eastern Japan since March might end
up in the food chain via rice straw left outside
Either that, or after the meltdown
at the Fukushima nuclear power plant farmers and
officials knowingly ignored public safety concerns
to profit from the sale of straw, cows and other
perishable food items before they would have to be
thrown out, slaughtered or burned.
straw, eaten by at least 2,900 cows that were
possibly consumed by thousands of humans, is
causing perhaps the
biggest food scare ever in
Japan, a country that prides itself on its
healthy, homegrown diet.
Yet so far, more
than four months after cesium, iodine, and other
radioactive subatomic particles began showing up
in food across Japan, not a single farmer,
trucker, wholesaler, retailer or government
official has been charged - or even investigated -
for potential criminal negligence.
Japanese media, while exposing the food
scandal, have yet to determine how many thousands
of people in Japan may have eaten food laced with
cancer-causing toxins such as cesium.
Ministry of Agriculture said on Tuesday that at
least 116 farms in 16 prefectures, from Hokkaido
in the far north to Shimane in western Japan, used
contaminated rice straw as feed. At least 2,906
cows ate this straw before being shipped around
Japan, the ministry said. Only 274 samples have
been tested, about a tenth of the total, and 23 of
them contained cesium surpassing government safety
"Beef containing cesium has
already entered into the market," Hideo Harada,
the director for livestock policy planning at the
Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries,
told reporters in Tokyo. "We have to prevent it
from reaching consumers by checking meat and
recalling tainted products from the market."
Many taxpayers are outraged that the
government let the cesium enter the food chain,
and is now planning to use taxpayers' money to
compensate the farmers and others in the meat
industry about 2 billion yen (US$25 million) to
purchase, store or incinerate the meat.
"Why after all this intentional damage,
outright negligence and incompetence are the
people of Japan silent?" wrote "Tkoind2", one of
many critics on a chat site of Japan Today, a
Tokyo-based news site. "In any other nation there
would have been crowds storming the offices of the
government and demanding the replacement of the
leadership. But in Japan ... near deafening
silence. Japan has largely shattered the last
illusions I held in hope for her future."
Said another chat-site commentator,
"smithinjapan": "The world cannot trust the word
of a government who constantly lies or claims not
to know what's happening ("not our fault!") and
ships stuff contaminated with radiation without
any kind of testing."
Michihiko Kano admitted this month that officials
didn't realize that farmers might send
contaminated straw to ranchers. The Yomiuri
Shimbun, Japan's largest daily by circulation,
quoted an unnamed Agriculture Ministry official as
saying: "This is nothing less than a colossal
blunder by our ministry. It was beyond our
expectations that straw would become a source of
agree that the government should have quarantined
all food items in Fukushima, Miyagi and other
nearby prefectures immediately after explosions
began at reactors on March 12. Then, they should
have only permitted the sale and distribution of
items perhaps months after comprehensive testing
for radioactive particles was completed.
Instead, the government is, in effect,
closing the barn door after the horses have run
away. The Health Ministry declared a ban on the
distribution of beef from Fukushima prefecture on
July 19, when it should have been applied
immediately after the March 11 earthquake that
triggered the meltdown and the tsunami that
ravaged the northeast coast of Japan. The ministry
also banned shiitake mushrooms from
Fukushima on July 23, more than four months after
people have been eating them.
have been added to a menu of unsafe products in
Japan including samples of milk, tea, seafood,
spinach, bamboo shoots and many other vegetables.
Many consumers wonder what, if anything, is safe
to eat in Japan.
Aeon said more than 4,000
kilograms of contaminated beef was put on sale at
174 of its supermarkets nationwide, while Tokyu
said it sold tainted beef at 63 of its stores.
Since supermarkets only began testing meat earlier
this month, it's difficult to know how much
tainted beef has been consumed since March 11.
No officials have publicly announced
estimates of how many consumers ate the meat. But
a quick calculation indicates that if 10,000
kilograms of meat was contaminated, and people ate
200 grams each on average, that means 50,000
people ate beef tainted with cesium. Moreover,
200,000 kilos could potentially affect a million
Since the Agriculture Ministry was
so lax about rice straw, it's possible that other
food items are tainted as well: chicken, pork,
rice, vegetables - basically anything that was
outdoors after the explosions in March.
Tokyo Electric Power Company poured radioactive
water into the ocean in the weeks after explosions
at Fukushima nuclear reactors, many Japanese
shunned potentially harmful seafood in favor of
beef, and government officials even made public
shows of eating beef from Fukushima prefecture, to
show it was "safe".
As a result, many
foreign nations removed restrictions on food
products from Japan.
But the recent food
crisis began when the central government gave
written instructions on March 19 for local
officials to tell farmers not to feed grass stored
outside after the nuclear eruptions to cattle, but
they made no mention of rice straw, which some
farmers feed cattle in order to increase the
marbled fat favored by diners in Japan.
One farmer near Minami-soma city, who
didn't bother to cover his straw or move it
indoors, fed it to cattle because he had nothing
else to give them, according to the Fukushima
For nearly four
months, the cesium in the straw and cattle wasn't
detected until a slaughterhouse in the Shibaura
port area of Tokyo discovered it on July 8 in some
of the 11 cows it received from the farm,
according to the Asahi newspaper. That meat wasn't
distributed. But the slaughterhouse realized that
it had already taken another 6 cows from the same
farm in May and June, and had shipped them to
retailers and consumers, without knowing about
By the time
government officials got around to testing the
items, they found cesium levels 25 times the
acceptable limit in straw in the farmer's rice
field, and 5 times legal levels in beef tracked to
a Tokyo market and then distributed around Japan.
Using codes on packages, officials tracked the
beef to the suburbs of Sagamihara and Fujisawa
west of Tokyo, as well as Kochi province in the
Shikoku region of western Japan, and the northern
province of Akita.
supplies only about 3% of Japan's meat, but much
larger shares of rice and vegetables. Shipments of
liver and intestines, which are popular items
across Asia, do not legally require the same
tracking details as meat, and little is known
about the possible contamination of these items.
One butcher, quoted in Yomiuri, summed up
what many feel in Japan. "If grass is contaminated
with radioactive substances, so is straw. Is that
so difficult to figure out? Until the government
takes more effective action against this problem,
I'll be scared to sell beef at my shop."
Tokyo-based journalist Christopher
Johnson (www.globalite.posterous.com) is
author of Siamese Dreams and Kobe Blue.
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