Prefectural governments in the Tohoku and Kanto regions have started questioning cattle farm owners about their straw feed as they try to stop more beef tainted with radioactive cesium from reaching consumers, government sources said.
The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry asked the prefectures to conduct the inspections after cesium exceeding the provisional regulatory limit was detected Friday in cattle at a farm in Asakawamachi, Fukushima Prefecture, that were fed straw tainted with high levels of cesium.
However, the prefectural governments face a huge task testing all beef cattle–in both manpower and costs–even though livestock farmers have requested such inspections to ensure their animals are safe and to prevent fears of radiation from damaging their business.
The prefectures that received the request from the ministry are Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi, Ibaraki, Gunma, Tochigi, Chiba, Saitama, Tokyo, Kanagawa and Shizuoka. Radioactive cesium exceeding the safety limit has been detected in pasture, tea leaves and other plants in these prefectures since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami triggered an accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
The Miyagi prefectural government has started questioning 915 farmers by telephone about when rice straw they use as feed was cut and whether it was fed to their cows. Straw contaminated with high levels of radioactive cesium was found earlier at three locations in the prefecture.
“We expect few farmers would’ve stored straw outdoors because its quality deteriorates if rain makes it wet,” an official in charge of the inspections at the prefectural government said. “But if we find farmers are storing straw in the open, we’ll tell them not to use the straw that’s piled on top.”
Officials of other prefectures said they plan to ask cattle farmers similar questions by phone or in person.
Some livestock farmers want the tests extended to beef as well.
“The central government should have instructed prefectural governments [to carry out inspections on how straw is stored],” a livestock farmer in his 50s in Takasaki, Gunma Prefecture, said.
The farmer said livestock farmers in Kanto could go bankrupt and be forced to walk off their land because of fears caused by rumors “unless all cattle are inspected, just like they were after the mad cow disease outbreak.”
Hiroyuki Yamazaki, a member of JA Nasuno, an agricultural cooperative in Nasu-Shiobara, Tochigi Prefecture, said the tainted straw revelations were a bitter blow for an industry already on its knees.
“Beef from Fukushima hasn’t been selling well since the nuclear plant accident,” Yamazaki said. “The straw problem will only make consumers more afraid. We hope the government will conduct blanket testing to assure consumers that beef is safe.”
However, local governments said it would be difficult to test every cow.
Saitama Prefecture is home to about 13,000 milk cows and 27,000 beef cattle. An official at the prefectural government said: “It’s physically impossible to test every cow. We’re not even sure what method will be best for taking samples.”
An official at the Gunma prefectural government’s livestock division said the financial cost of the tests also was considerable.
“We can hardly check every cow because the test costs about 20,000 yen per head,” he said.
The local government plans to conduct spot checks about once a week in all areas, the official added.
Inspectors on Saturday started checking straw used at all 82 cattle farms in Minami-Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, which is in the emergency evacuation preparation zone between 20 and 30 kilometers from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant.
Clad in protective clothing, eight staffers of the Minami-Soma government examined a cattle shed of Toshitaka Ogura, who raises 140 beef cattle.
After asking Ogura, 59, about when the straw was cut, how he got it and how he stored it, the city officials measured radiation levels on the surface of the bundled straw and took away about one kilogram of the straw in a bag for further testing.
Last week, beef cows shipped by a farm in Minami-Soma were found tainted with radioactive cesium exceeding the provisional regulatory limit of 500 becquerels per kilogram.