JAPAN | Last year’s rice being hoarded over radiation contamination worries

Posted on August 5, 2011

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JAPAN | MAINICHI | 5 August 2011

An uneasy Akira Sudo clears grass from his rice paddies in Tome, Miyagi Prefecture, on Aug. 3. (Mainichi)

TOKYO (Kyodo) — Consumers are beginning to hoard last year’s rice as their dietary staple over concerns that freshly harvested rice may be contaminated with radioactive materials released from the troubled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, retailers said Friday.

The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry is working to establish a system for ensuring the safety of rice ahead of the harvest season in autumn, with plans to inspect the crop in two stages.

The buying spree, however, indicates deep public distrust of the government’s handling of food safety issues in the wake of the nuclear crisis following a scare over contaminated beef.

A rice seller in Tokyo’s Nerima Ward said regular customers began asking it to keep rice on stock just around the time the ministry disclosed its rice inspection plans on Wednesday.

A supermarket in Koto Ward, also Tokyo, said rice is selling at twice the normal pace at the outlet, while various rice brands were mostly sold out at a nearby shopping center.

“It’s like a rice panic,” said a store clerk at a supermarket in Chuo Ward, noting that given the strong demand for old rice, wholesalers are hesitant about quickly releasing their stock.

According to Kitoku Shinryo Co., a major rice wholesaler based in Tokyo, rice from the previous year does not sell much around this time of year ahead of the arrival on the market of freshly harvested rice. Retailers therefore tend to refrain from stocking it at their outlets, it said.

Noting that rice, which is mostly marketed after polishing, is not the kind of produce likely to show levels of contamination above the allowable limit, a Kitoku Shinryo official said, “The panic will probably subside once fresh rice starts to go around.”

Some retailers are concerned, however, about how consumers would react if radioactive materials are found in rice even at levels below the limit.

“I know an acquaintance who has hoarded rice from last year,” said a 53-year-old woman who was shopping at a mall in Tokyo’s Koto Ward. “I would be lying if I said I’m not worried, because it’s a staple.”

Consumers are apparently motivated in part by their mistrust of the government for the way it has handled the contamination of cattle with radioactive cesium and the distribution of affected beef.

A 47-year-old designer in Chuo Ward said he believes that consumers must do what they can to protect themselves. “Contaminated beef got into the distribution chain. It would be too late if we were told afterwards that there were (excessive levels of radioactive materials in rice) after all.”

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