Mayumi Kurasawa’s seaweed company saw seven of its factories swept away by the 2011 tsunami. Nearly two years later, sales continue to be eroded by consumer fears over nuclear contamination from the Fukushima No. 1 power plant.
“Our seaweed is checked every day, and I guarantee you that it’s safe,” she said during a recent visit to Tokyo to promote the company she works for, Kawashu. “But we are selling two-thirds less than before Fukushima.”
Like many farmers in the Tohoku region, Kurasawa is struggling to sell her produce to a wary population that remains unconvinced by reassurances of food safety.
Even though the Kawashu company’s production sites are in Iwate Prefecture, 300 km from the nuclear plant, it is struggling to sell its “wakame” seaweed.
“Many clients prefer produce from South Korea or from China over us. They think it’s safer,” Kurasawa said.
Previously lauded for their quality, Tohoku products from wasabi, mushrooms, fruit and grains to salmon and sake are now regarded with suspicion by a large number of Japanese customers.
The problems started, of course, when the Fukushima No. 1 plant was swamped by the March 11, 2011, tsunami and three of its reactors went into meltdown after their cooling systems were knocked out.
The reactors spewed radioactive contamination into the atmosphere, forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of people.
Sales for Tohoku products have dropped 60 to 70 percent on average against what they were before the crisis.
After the disaster started to abate, the legal limit for radioactive cesium in food was raised in line with international emergency procedures before returning to normal in April last year.
This return to “normal” should have reassured consumers, but the stigma has lingered from temporary bans imposed on beef, milk, mushrooms, vegetables and rice from Fukushima Prefecture after they were found to contain levels of radioactive cesium above government safety limits.
Public faith that certain foods were safe has also been hit by instances of fraud, in which wholesalers have attempted to sell Fukushima produce under the labels of other regions.
The products in question were found not to be dangerous, but the deception, along with doubts over government food screening measures cobbled together after the crisis started, has made life even harder for farmers.
Consumers and experts have also voiced suspicions that officials are understating potential health risks due to worries about the possible economic fallout and the complications should compensation come into play.
Grocery stores, skeptical about the government’s legal limit of 100 becquerels of radioactive cesium per kilogram for food, have begun their own testing regimens.
The country’s largest supermarket chain, Aeon, has been enforcing a zero-risk policy.
“If we detect radioactive cesium in a product over measurable limits, we stop procuring it from the area it is produced in,” Aeon spokesman Norihito Ikkai said. “As a result, it enables customers to buy our products free from anxiety.”
In the area around the power station, the majority of produce is now well below the legal limit for radiation, and most produce, plants and animals raised in other prefectures in Tohoku pass inspections.
“All products sold here are checked and healthy,” said Katsuyasu Ito, the chef at the L’aureole French restaurant in Oshu, Iwate Prefecture. “But anxieties remain among consumers when it comes to Tohoku products.”
Exports have also been hit, falling 8.3 percent from 2010 to ¥451.1 billion in 2011, according to statistics from the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry.
“A total of 45 countries and areas restricted food imports from Japan following the nuclear plant accident, resulting in declines in shipments,” a ministry official said. “Generally, they are easing the curbs, except for South Korea.”
In the Fukushima town of Soma, 40 km from the stricken power plant, locally grown rice has been passing the radiation tests, but only locals want to buy it.
Masahiro Saito, a chicken farmer who has seen a 20 percent loss in his turnover, feels less unlucky than his grain- and vegetable-growing neighbors, some of whom have had to pack up for good.
“At the peak of the radiation in March 2011, I recorded 5 becquerels of radioactive cesium per kilogram on my chickens,” well below the government limit, Saito said.
Like most of his counterparts, he has raised his animals on American corn, which explains why he and other farmers have suffered less than others in the region.
But the consequences of the nuclear catastrophe are still being felt two years later on the overall economy, not just agriculture, and on the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of people in the region.
The cleanup around Fukushima is expected to take decades and experts warn that some communities may have to be abandoned.
Anecdotally, the pressures are mounting and stories of people whose livelihoods have dried up abound in the media.
The Cabinet Office says up until last November, 76 people in the region took their own lives in connection with the disaster.
Of the deaths, 21 were linked to financial and livelihood issues and nine to employment issues, the government said.