JAPAN | Govt inspection abilities stretched to limit

Posted on August 11, 2011

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JAPAN | YOMIURI | 11 August 2011

Rice is harvested Monday for radiation inspections in Tateyama, Chiba Prefecture.

Local governments have been stretched to the limit of their capabilities to check food for radiation just before harvesting the first rice crop since the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

The farm ministry has attached extra importance to the safety of rice, the nation’s staple food, calling for radiation checks to be done before and after harvesting. But as safety concerns have arisen about vegetables, fish, beef and rice straw, local governments’ inspection capabilities are already at the breaking point.

In Fukushima Prefecture, for example, some municipalities must check as many as 200 items for radioactive contamination.

Many local governments complain they do not have time to inspect rice crops.

Municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture have checked 80 vegetables, including cucumbers, green peppers and edamame. Additionally, they have checked 10 different fruits, 90 kinds of fish and seafood, as well as meat, eggs and milk since the March 11 disaster. Overall, they have conducted more than 4,000 inspections.

Additionally, they have inspected soil, tap water, pasture grass, incinerated ash and sludge. Full-time inspections were even carried out on Saturdays and Sundays.

On top of this, rice inspections are scheduled to start in September. Preliminary checks will be conducted at 402 locations designated by the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry as areas contaminated with high levels of radioactive cesium.

Municipalities recording cesium contamination of more than 200 becquerels per kilogram of rice in their paddies in preliminary inspections will undertake further inspections in two locations on every 15 hectares of land. The prefecture has about 70,000 hectares of rice fields this year. Full-scale inspections will be conducted after the rice is harvested.

The prefecture has 12 germanium semiconductor detectors that cost 20 million yen each. It plans to purchase six more devices for rice inspection at the end of this month. But a prefectural government official is not sure whether they will have enough equipment to cover all areas that need inspecting.

“There is no telling how many sites will need to be inspected,” he said.

An Akita prefectural government official in charge of agricultural policy also lamented the situation, saying: “We are in trouble. You can’t give what you don’t have.”

The prefecture, known for its rice has only one germanium semiconductor detector. It takes six hours for the detector to check one sample. Checking rainwater and tap water radiation levels takes up 12 hours every day. In the meantime, inspections must be conducted on 15 items including chicken, watermelons and cucumbers.

The maximum number of food samples that can be checked a day is 10, the official said. If rice is added to the list, the checks will be beyond the capacity of the prefectural government, the official added.

This leaves the prefectural government with no alternative but to rely on external inspection organizations. The prefecture is now looking for an organization to handle this.

The farm ministry confirmed that there are about 30 private inspection facilities currently operating. However, they have been inundated with inspection orders, and many facilities cannot handle the load.

One such facility is Japan Food Research Laboratories. Headquartered in Tokyo, the company operates three detectors around the clock to inspect 150 samples a day. An official of the laboratories said: “Inspection requests for meat have been rising sharply. If we receive requests for rice inspection, we are not sure whether we can handle all of them.”

In preliminary inspections to be conducted before rice is harvested, samples will be taken at 3,000 to 4,000 locations across the country, the farm ministry said. If the rice cannot be confirmed as safe through the inspections, the farmers in the municipalities concerned will likely not be able to ship their crops.

An official of the Miyagi prefectural government, which outsources all inspections to external organizations, expressed concern about rice shipments, saying, “If inspection agencies are inundated with examination requests, it will take a long time to complete inspections and this may lead to delayed shipments.”

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Inspections in 17 prefectures

Seventeen prefectures currently are subject to mandatory radiation checks, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry

The ministry announced its first inspection order on April 4 after radiation exceeding the provisional allowable limit was detected in milk and other products. At the time, the number of prefectures subject to inspection was 11.

What to inspect and the number of samples are decided by each municipal government.

If agricultural and livestock products are found to be tainted with radiation exceeding the provisional allowable values, their shipments will be halted.

Shipments can be resumed if contamination falls below the allowable figures in three consecutive inspections. However, they must continue regular inspections even after shipment bans are lifted.

In the case of spinach produced in Chiba Prefecture whose shipment ban was lifted in late April, inspections have been conducted once a month.

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