JAPAN | Agriculture Ministry under fire over contaminated rice straw

Posted on July 20, 2011

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JAPAN | MAINICHI | 20 July 2011

Prefectural officials interview livestock farmers after radioactive cesium was detected in cattle raised in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, on July 10. (Mainichi)

Prefectural officials interview livestock farmers after radioactive cesium was detected in cattle raised in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, on July 10. (Mainichi)

The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry has come under fire for failing to take prompt action to prevent rice straw contaminated with radioactive substances from being marketed as livestock feed shortly after the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

The ministry apparently did not know that rice straw kept outdoors is used as feed for beef cows. Cattle that ate such rice straw were subsequently found contaminated with radioactive cesium.

Even though the government banned beef cows being raised throughout Fukushima Prefecture from being shipped from July 19, the national and local governments face challenges to prevent the further spread of contaminated beef and to pay compensation to those affected.

Livestock farms give rice straw to beef cows along with assorted feed over a one-year period up to their shipment because it helps marble their meat, according to industry insiders.

Following the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Miyazaki Prefecture and surrounding areas in 2000, it was suspected that the cows got infected with the disease from rice straw imported from China, which may have been tainted with the virus. The outbreak encouraged livestock farmers to switch to domestically produced rice straw.

About 68,000 metric tons of rice straw for livestock feed was produced in Miyagi Prefecture in fiscal 2009, the largest amount of all prefectures across the country.

On March 19, more than a week after the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake, the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry instructed livestock farmers via prefectural governments to only use as livestock feed pastured grass that had been harvested before the nuclear crisis and kept indoors following the disaster.

However, the ministry failed to incorporate the phrase, “rice straw,” in its advisory. Moreover, it failed to warn rice farmers that supply rice straw to livestock farmers of the danger of radiation contamination.

A ministry official acknowledges that it did not know rice straw kept outdoors is used as livestock feed. “I thought that rice straw left outdoors was plowed back into rice paddies, and had no idea it would be given to cows as feed.”

In coastal areas in the Tohoku region, farmers often leave outdoors rice straw that was not sufficiently dried in autumn and collect it in the following spring. However, the ministry had not known that and instead believed that all straw used as livestock feed is preserved in a storage facility after being dried in autumn, according to Takashi Ono, director of the ministry’s Livestock Production and Feed Division.

After being alerted by the ministry, the Miyagi Prefectural Government advised local agricultural cooperatives and livestock farming industry organizations not to use such feed, including rice straw left outdoors even after the nuclear crisis, to cows.

However, the prefectural government stopped short of checking rice straw stored as livestock feed in Miyagi Prefecture to see if it was contaminated with radioactive substances because the storage areas are relatively far from the crippled nuclear plant.

“We may have lacked a sense of crisis,” says an official with the prefectural government’s livestock division.

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