Nuke crisis scares foreign buyers off seafood

Bloomberg

Exports of Japanese seafood have been canceled by foreign buyers on concern that the products may have been contaminated by radiation leaking from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant, a government official said.

At least 10 orders have been withdrawn since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami damaged the power station, Hiromi Isa, trade office director at the Fisheries Agency, said in a Tuesday interview in Tokyo. The cancellations were made even as the government assured the food’s safety, Isa said.

Sushi restaurants and hotels, including Shangri-La Asia’s luxury chain, dropped Japanese seafood from their menus because of radiation fears. Global fishing companies, including Hong Kong’s Pacific Andes International Holdings Ltd., could benefit from increased demand to replace Japanese produce. Radioactive iodine in seawater near the plant rose Tuesday to 3,355 times the regulation level set by the government, Japan’s nuclear safety agency said Wednesday.

“We’ve heard from Japanese exporting companies that fish purchases have been canceled and buyers have been asking for discounts,” Isa said. He declined to identify companies and countries involved.

Nations from Australia to the U.S. have limited Japanese food imports after elevated radiation levels were found outside an evacuation radius around the Fukushima plant. Singapore banned seafood imports from Fukushima, Ibaraki, Tochigi and Gunma, while allowing shipments from other Japanese prefectures.

“Our test results showed no fish were contaminated by higher-than-acceptable levels of radioactivity,” Isa said. “We can issue certificates for the origin of fish if required by overseas governments as a condition for imports.”

Japan exported 565,295 metric tons of fish and other marine products worth ¥195 billion last year. Of the total, mackerel represented 120,416 tons, while tuna accounted for 79,767 tons. The nation’s total output of marine products amounted to 5.43 million tons in 2009, according to the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry.

Since last week, the Fisheries Research Agency has tested samples from five types of fish caught off the coast of Choshi in Chiba Prefecture, the fishing area south of the Fukushima nuclear plant. The institute has been monitoring radioactivity in Japanese marine life for the past five decades, after nuclear arms testing by the U.S. and the former Soviet Union raised concerns about contamination.

The institute detected 3 becquerels per kilogram of cesium-137 in anchovy, but nothing in samples from alfonsino, mackerel, spear squid and olive flounder. The level was far below the standard set by the health ministry of 500 becquerels per kilogram for fish.

“Unlike mercury, radioactive cesium won’t be accumulated or concentrated in fish as it is discharged,” said Takami Morita, a researcher at the Fisheries Agency. Radiation is also diluted in seawater, lowering the contamination risk.

The health ministry requires each prefectural governor to test agricultural and marine products for radioactive contamination and restricts shipments from regions where tainted foods are discovered. The ministry has tentatively set tolerable levels of radioactivity for each product.

The government has restricted shipments of raw milk and vegetables from Fukushima and neighboring prefectures after it discovered contaminated products.

To alleviate concerns, Japan will explain the safety of its products sold in the domestic and overseas markets to the World Trade Organization, Isa said.