Child care firms and others scramble for bottled water

by Jun Hongo

Nursery schools, supermarkets and manufacturers scrambled to secure enough supplies of bottled water Thursday following news that tap water in Tokyo and other prefectures was found to be contaminated with levels of radioactive iodine dangerous to infants aged 1 or younger.

“We are taking care of about 300 to 400 babies younger than 1 year old,” a spokesman for Ness Corp., which operates 11 nursery schools in the Tokyo area, told The Japan Times.

For Thursday’s operation, each school operated by Ness used bottled water for cooking as well as making formula for the toddlers. Tap water was used only for washing hands.

“It is difficult to determine how large a stock of bottled water we have, but we will probably be able to last a week,” the spokesman said. Their schools are also equipped with top-notch water purifiers and may consider using them for cooking if safety is confirmed, he added.

Meanwhile, another nursery school chain in Tokyo said it gave babies under its charge bottled water for drinking and making formula but used tap water for cooking, as the government has said such use is safe.

“There are some guardians who have contacted us about the issue. Some decided to bring their own lunches today,” said a spokeswoman who asked not to be named. Their stock of bottled water “will last for a while,” but if contamination continues for an extended period, they may need to contact their dealers for a bulk purchase.

But manufactures hinted production may not be increased in the short term.

“We are doing everything we can to answer the call, but our production line was already working around the clock even before the earthquake,” a spokeswoman for Kirin Beverage Corp. said.

The soft-drink giant manufactures its signature Alkali-Ion no Mizu bottled water mainly at its factory in Shizuoka Prefecture. Kirin sold 18.85 million cases, or about 113 million bottles, in 2010, but increasing distribution will be difficult, it said.

This is in part due to the fact that some factories have had their operation cut short because of Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s ongoing rolling blackouts.

“We are doing what we can, but we also need to prioritize areas that were hit hard by the tragedy,” the Kirin spokeswoman said.

Retailers also say demand is hugely exceeding supply.

“We did get some shipments at our stores in Tokyo today, but they flew off the shelves,” a spokesman for supermarket chain Daimaru Peacock told The Japan Times.

The Peacock chain operates 51 of its stores in the Tokyo region, and about 40 in other areas. Due to high demand, it has limited the number of bottles that each customer can purchase in the Tokyo stores.

“For example, we’ve had to limit the sales of water to one bottle per person in some stores. But that hasn’t helped much,” the spokesman said.

A spokeswoman for the Seijo Ishii grocery store chain echoed this view, adding that a shortage of bottled water had already been an issue in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami.

“Demand was high even before the news of water contamination,” she said, adding the company is struggling to secure enough supplies following the contamination in Tokyo.

Canada restrictions

Kyodo News

Canada said Wednesday it is implementing enhanced import controls on milk products, fruits and vegetables from four Japanese prefectures affected by the ongoing nuclear crisis.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency said these products from Fukushima, Gunma, Ibaraki and Tochigi will not be allowed entry into Canada without acceptable documentation verifying their safety.

Any potentially contaminated products will be disposed of in accordance with protocols from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, it said.

According to the agency, food imports from Japan account for less than 0.3 percent of Canada’s total food imports.

In Sydney on Thursday, the Australian government also placed restrictions on imports of food from Japan due to radiation concerns.

Australia’s food safety agency, Food Standards Australia New Zealand, said that quarantine authorities have been asked to halt “all foods of interest originating from the Japanese prefectures of Fukushima, Gunma, Ibaraki and Tochigi” where radiation contamination has been detected.

It said the items in question include Japanese seaweed and seafood, which are only imported in small quantities, as well as milk products and fresh produce, which are not imported anyway.

New Zealand did not follow suit, however, saying it imports little food from Japan to begin with, and nothing that would be cause for alarm.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong will also ban imports of Japanese farm produce, meat and seafood from the prefectures of Fukushima, Ibaraki, Tochigi, Gunma and Chiba after a radioactive substance was found in three vegetable samples, according to a government statement Wednesday.