The mounting cases of beef containing high levels of cesium recall the 2001 domestic outbreak of mad cow disease, in that slow government action and poor communication have once again been blamed for exacerbating the damage, industry experts say.
Some 650 cattle fed hay tainted with radioactive cesium have been distributed to the market, with some of the meat already having been sold to consumers.
The beef cattle shipped from Fukushima, Niigata and Yamagata prefectures were given feed that contained in some cases up to 690,000 becquerels of radioactive material per kilogram. The government-set safety limit is 300 becquerels per kilogram.
The development “may eventually cause harm to exports of Japanese beef,” Tatsuo Iwama, an executive director at the Japan Meat Traders Association, told The Japan Times.
Iwama noted that the latest scare came just as concern over the foot-and-mouth outbreak among cattle in Miyazaki Prefecture had finally died down.
To avoid a further fall in beef exports, it will be crucial for both the government and the industry to promote the safety of beef from cattle raised outside the nuclear-crisis zone, he stressed.
But the beef specialist also said sales of cesium-contaminated meat could have been avoided or minimized if the government had acted appropriately.
“It is true that the nuclear crisis is an unprecedented event. But it can’t be denied that the government was slow to act, just like during the outbreak of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy),” Iwama said.
The agriculture ministry’s warning against the spread of contaminated feed was originally released March 19. The two-page notice instructed farmers to keep animal feed, water as well as livestock inside to avoid radiation exposure.
The notice was distributed to local governments in the Tohoku and Kanto regions.
But when the news broke that contaminated beef was being sold on the market, some farmers said they had never gotten the notice.
This has led not only to sales of contaminated beef but the spread of tainted feed outside Fukushima, thus expanding the damage.
The fiasco is evoking a sense of deja vu for those involved in the beef industry because the outbreak of mad cow disease in 2001 followed identical steps.
Japan’s first case of BSE came to light in September 2001, when seven Holsteins were revealed to have been infected.
An agriculture ministry panel concluded in 2003 that the virus spread through five feed production plants nationwide that were selling meat-and-bone meal with protein particles suspected of transmitting the virus.
By 1986, BSE had been confirmed in the U.K. and consumption of meat-and-bone meal was banned there by 1996. Tokyo followed with its own ban, but not until 2001 and only after beef consumption saw a drastic drop amid the BSE outbreak.
The government Tuesday formally suspended shipments of all beef cattle from Fukushima Prefecture, but those in the industry fear the decision came too late again.
“It’s really sad news,” said a 64-year-old man who has been working in the meat industry for 28 years.
Speaking to The Japan Times on condition of anonymity, the Tokyo resident voiced concern that the latest shipments of radioactive beef have already impacted how consumers think.
By law, the prefecture they’re from must be displayed when vegetables are sold. But for meat, stores merely have to label it as “domestically produced” or “foreign produced.”
While consumers can track where the meat was packed by typing in individual identification numbers on the National Livestock Breeding Center’s website, many will in the end shun domestic beef, whether they can ascertain the origin of home-grown brands or not, he said.
Following the March 11 disaster, many consumers made a point of supporting the damaged prefectures by purchasing Tohoku-grown produce.
But support is waning as radioactive contamination continues to make headlines, the industry insider said.
The cesium-tainted beef is one more nail in the coffin for Fukushima farmers, he added.
“We’ve been careful about meat produced within the 30-km radius (from the Fukushima No. 1 power plant). But this time, contaminated beef was shipped from a city quite far from the power plant,” he said.
“We’ve been trying to avoid (rumor damage). But (with the news), that’s destroyed. It’s very sad.”
“You can’t blame the issue on one side,” Iwama of the JMTA added. “The government, the farmers . . . they were all a bit too naive about the dangers of contamination.”