JAPAN | VOX POPULI: Radioactive beef fears too serious to dismiss as groundless rumors

Posted on July 29, 2011

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JAPAN | ASAHI SHIMBUN | 29 July 2011

What does sukiyaki beef costing 3,000 yen ($38) a slice taste like? Cartoonist Sadao Shoji once wrote about it in a popular column that runs in the weekly Shukan Asahi magazine. At the risk of annoying readers, he slurped a slice covered in sukiyaki sauce and raw egg. “It is more chewy than tender… and glides easily down the throat,” he wrote. It was Matsusaka beef priced at 20 million yen a head.

Japanese beef, or “wagyu,” is synonymous with high-class meat. When the beef is named after its place of origin, it sounds all the more classy. Place names must have much to do with the texture and price of beef. Meanwhile, imported beef with the name of the country of origin is more common in homes and in the “gyudon” restaurants that serve bowls of rice topped with beef. In the world of beef, domestic meat is more expensive than imports.

But I hear consumers are turning their backs on domestic beef. This is because beef from some 3,000 cattle that ate rice straw contaminated with radioactive cesium released by the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant was shipped to all prefectures except Okinawa Prefecture. In these circumstances, people are going to have a tendency to stay away from “anonymous” domestic beef.

According to reports, the beef in question will either be bought up by an industry association or put in frozen storage. The bill will be passed to Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the Fukushima plant. Tracing the contaminated beef is difficult and the anxiety of consumers shows no signs of abating. As moves to impose a voluntary ban on shipments spread and prices fell, livestock farmers had a really tough time. Some brands of beef have been damaged.

The damage caused by radiation is hard to pin down. The Cabinet Office’s Food Safety Commission says “levels that produce harmful effects are 100 millisieverts or more in a lifetime total.” But, apparently, this does not necessarily mean that less than that amount is safe. To begin with, we have no means to know the amount of daily radiation exposure.

Even though the government says eating contaminated beef “has no immediate effect” on health, parents cannot stand to think that it may affect their children’s future, even by a small amount. Instead of accepting the government’s explanation, parents, seized by undefined anxieties, are tending to choose imported beef over domestic beef and are shifting from beef to pork. The collateral damage is too serious to call these worries groundless rumors.

–The Asahi Shimbun, July 28

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.

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