JAPAN | Threat to food chain grows as contamination spreads

Posted on July 28, 2011

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JAPAN | JAPAN TIMES | 28 July 2011

By AYA TAKADA
Bloomberg

Radiation fallout from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant poses a growing threat to the nation’s food chain as unsafe levels of cesium found in beef on supermarket shelves were also detected in more vegetables and in the ocean.

News photo
Meat of the matter: Beef cattle raised in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, peek through a pen on July 19. KYODO

More than 2,600 cattle have been contaminated, Kyodo News reported Saturday, after the Miyagi Prefectural Government said 1,183 cattle at 58 farms were fed hay containing radioactive cesium before being shipped to meat markets.

Agriculture minister Michihiko Kano has said officials didn’t foresee that farmers might ship contaminated hay to cattle ranchers. That highlights the government’s inability to think ahead and to act, said Mariko Sano, secretary general for Shufuren, a housewives organization in Tokyo.

“The government is so slow to move,” Sano said. “They’ve done little to ensure food safety.”

Aeon Co., the country’s biggest supermarket chain, said Monday 4,108 kg of beef suspected of being contaminated was inadvertently put on sale at 174 stores nationwide. Supermarkets started testing beef after the Tokyo Metropolitan Government found radioactive cesium in slaughtered cattle this month.

The government on July 19 banned cattle shipments from Fukushima Prefecture, though not before some had been slaughtered and shipped to supermarkets. A ban on shiitake from another part of Fukushima took effect Saturday because of cesium levels, the health ministry said.

“Some areas still have high radiation . . . and if you also eat products from these areas, you’ll get a considerable amount of radiation,” said Sentaro Takahashi, a professor of radiation control at Kyoto University. “This is why the government needs to do something fast.”

Radiation in food is measured in becquerels, a gauge of the strength of radioactivity in materials such as iodine-131 and cesium-137.

As much as 2,300 becquerels of cesium per kg was detected in the contaminated beef, according to a July 18 statement from the health ministry. The government limit is 500 becquerels per kg.

Seafood is another concern after cesium-134 in seawater near the Fukushima plant climbed to levels 30 times the allowed safety standards last week, according to tests performed by Tokyo Electric Power Co, NHK reported.

“We need to monitor the cesium-134 level detected in seawater around the plant,” Tetsuo Ito, head of the Atomic Energy Research Institute at Kinki University, said. “The increase could be from seawater churned by swells from the recent typhoon, but it’s possible that contaminated groundwater leaked from the plant.”

The nation has no centralized system to check for radiation contamination of food, leaving local authorities and farmers conducting voluntary tests. Produce including spinach, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, tea, milk, plums and fish have been found contaminated with cesium and iodine as far as 360 km from the Fukushima plant.

Hay contaminated with as much as 690,000 becquerels per kg, compared with a government safety standard of 300 becquerels, has been fed to cattle. Cattle with unsafe levels of the radioactive element were detected in four prefectures, the health ministry said Saturday.

A becquerel represents one radioactive decay per second, which involves the release of atomic energy that can damage human cells and DNA, with prolonged exposure causing leukemia and other forms of cancer, according to the World Nuclear Association.

Four months after the earthquake and tsunami damage to the Fukushima plant, local governments short of equipment, staff and funds are struggling to test all farm products.

The government is considering whether it’s feasible to test all cattle to prevent shipments of tainted meat to market, according to Yasuo Sasaki, senior press counselor for the farm ministry.

On June 6, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said the plant released about 770,000 terabecquerels of radioactive material into the air between March 11 and 16, doubling an earlier estimate.

That’s about 14 percent of the radiation emitted in the Chernobyl disaster. About 2 million people in Ukraine are under permanent medical monitoring, 25 years after the accident, according to the nation’s embassy in Tokyo.

While 203 people were hospitalized and 31 died after the explosion at Chernobyl, about 400,000 children are considered to have received significant doses of radiation to their thyroid that merit monitoring, the embassy added.

Cases of thyroid cancer in Belarus, which neighbors Ukraine, increased for at least 10 years after 1986 in children younger than 14 and for almost 20 years among 20-24 year olds, according to research by Shunichi Yamashita of Nagasaki University, who was appointed as an adviser to Fukushima Prefecture on radiation exposure.

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