Japanese food products have long been regarded as synonymous with “safety” and “security” in other parts of Asia, but their reputation is now at stake as radioactive materials far exceeding legal limits have been found in farm produce.
The detection of radioactive materials prompted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday to announce a ban on imports of dairy products and vegetables from the area near the crisis-hit Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
Countries in Asia and authorities in the Russian Far East have stepped up screening of Japanese food imports for radioactive contamination, while seawater has also been contaminated near the nuclear plant.
“Japan had been promoting its food overseas by emphasizing its safety and security,” a Japanese man in Beijing who engages in trade with China said. “Actual safety may be secured by inspection, but it is difficult to restore a sense of security.”
The nuclear crisis triggered by the massive quake and tsunami occurred just after the government moved to market Japanese agricultural products such as rice, which has a reputation for being “safe and tasty,” in the Chinese market, where the popularity of Japanese foods was growing mainly among wealthy people.
In China, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine ordered local authorities Monday to inspect Japanese food imports for radiation, the Xinhua news agency said, posing a big challenge to Japan’s aim of expanding food exports there.
South Korea’s Food and Drug Administration has started similar measures, stepping up screening of foreign farm products shipped through Japan by adding dry, frozen and processed foods produced in Japan as subject to inspection.
Despite such measures, public concern there remains strong, prompting major supermarkets and department stores to temporary halt imports and sales of Japanese seafood products.
“Though we try to explain that (Japanese foods) are fine because they’ve passed government screening, the consumer response is unyielding,” an official at a major supermarket in Seoul said.
The number of sake lovers has been on the rise in South Korea over the past few years.
An operator of a Japanese restaurant is worried.
“As the nuclear power plant crisis occurred in the Tohoku region, which is known for its various sake breweries, it could have a negative impact on the overall image of sake made in Japan,” the operator said.
Meanwhile, many scientists say there is no need for people outside Japan to be overly concerned about food contamination.
Among them is Patrick Regan, a professor in the physics department at the University of Surrey in Britain, who pointed out that the world was already covered in radioactive cesium-137 before the power plant accident due to nuclear experiments in the 1950s to 1960s.
Some ordinary people have taken heed.
Stanislav Pak, a 33-year-old chef at a sushi restaurant in Vladivostok, Russia, says he isn’t worried.
“More than 90 percent of seafood for sushi comes from Japan, but I’m not concerned as it comes after screening,” Pak said. “The number of customers has not changed and I do not see people being terrified about it.”
But concern over Japan-made products continues to spread.
Taiwan has started checking the radiation levels of Japanese industrial products such as home appliances, while U.S. authorities have announced the suspension of imports of dairy products, fresh vegetables and fruit produced in Fukushima and nearby Ibaraki, Tochigi and Gunma prefectures.
On Monday, the central government ordered the prefectures to suspend shipments of some vegetables following the detection of radioactive substances at levels beyond recommended limits.
The World Health Organization is conducting its own study on the health effects of food products exposed to radiation leaked into the atmosphere from the damaged nuclear power complex.
The organization said its experts in Geneva are looking at data collected by the Manila-based WHO Western Pacific regional office to offer observations and recommendations to member countries.