The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry is working to establish a system for ensuring the safety of rice ahead of the autumn harvest, with plans to inspect the crop in two stages.
The buying spree indicates deep public distrust in the government’s handling of food safety issues amid the nuclear crisis following a scare over contaminated beef.
A rice selling business in Nerima Ward, Tokyo, said regular customers began asking it to keep rice in stock just around the time the ministry disclosed its rice inspection plans Wednesday.
A supermarket in Koto Ward said rice is selling at twice the normal pace, while various 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 usually doesn’t sell well at this time of year, ahead of the arrival of a fresh harvest. Retailers therefore tend to refrain from stocking it at their outlets, the wholesaler said.
Noting that rice, which is mostly marketed after polishing, isn’t 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 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 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 consumers have to do everything they can to protect themselves.
“Contaminated beef got into the distribution chain. It would be too late if we were told afterward that there were (excessive radioactive levels in rice) after all.”