Big retailers doing their best to overcome consumers’ fears

JIJI

The retail industry has been aiding the recovery effort for primary industries in coastal Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, holding special events and campaigns to promote their products.

However, food safety assurances from local farmers and fishermen haven’t always been strong enough to allay fears their produce has been tainted by radiation from the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

In mid-February, the Fukushima Prefectural Government invited 24 consumers from the Tokyo area to tour the fishing port in Soma.

“I would like you to understand Fukushima’s efforts and the present situation,” Tatsuya Kaneko, a senior prefectural official in charge of agricultural product distribution, told the participants.

Kaneko stressed that only 1.8 percent of all marine and farm products in the prefecture were found to have unacceptable amounts of radioactive substances in fiscal 2012 — the year after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami triggered the core meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant managed by Tokyo Electric Power Co.

He also said sample inspections for many types of fish are still conducted every time catches are brought into port.

One of the participants, Hazuki Tanemura, a 22-year-old student from Chiba Prefecture, said she believes neither the media nor the government, but found what the local people told her to be persuasive.

Tanemura said she now believes the ratio of products tainted with excessive radiation is about one-tenth of what she expected.

“I do not want to forget the suffering of people in the disaster-affected areas,” said Toru Ota, 56, from Ageo, Saitama Prefecture. But he added that, if he is to be honest, he still doesn’t know what is safe and what is not.

Kazunori Endo, a senior official at a fishery cooperative in Soma, said the catches for the tests — which are limited to 33 kinds of fish — are only 4 percent of the pre-disaster level so far.

“We want to catch more,” Endo said, but he’s frustrated, given the likely impact of catching fish with excessive radiation.

Major retailers have been working together to promote products in the three prefectures hit hardest by the March 11 disasters.

Fresh fish from the afflicted areas has been selling at 70 to 80 percent of pre-disaster rates in major supermarkets, owing in large part to the recovery of fishing in the Sanriku coastal area in Iwate and Miyagi.

Seven & I Holdings Co. has forged partnerships with the three prefectural governments, producers and some 220 food manufacturers for a project to periodically sell farm products and processed fishery products across the country. The project has been extended to run another three years.

Aeon Co. has joined with local fishery cooperatives to develop and sell processed products using saury caught from Kuji in Iwate, and bonito from Onahama, in Fukushima.

Circle K Sunkus Co., the convenience store operator of UNY Group Holdings Co., plans to conduct a rice planting tour in conjunction with the umbrella organization for agricultural cooperatives in Miyagi for 40 parents and elementary school children from the nation’s three major urban areas.

The rice will be harvested in the autumn and used in Circle K Sunkus products.

The company has a special reason to help out Miyagi and the other disaster-hit areas as it started out with a store in Sendai.

However, a senior official at an agricultural cooperative in the Tohoku region said such efforts are no better than “a drop of water in a desert.”

Sales of sake made by breweries in Fukushima are running behind the pre-disaster level.

“Sales briefly recovered but fell again due to the water contamination crisis at the crippled nuclear plant,” Inokichi Shinjo, head of a sake makers’ group in Fukushima, said at a promotional event in Tokyo in late January.

On Saturday, Motofumi Kikuchi, a young fisherman from the Matsukawaura fishing port in Soma, demonstrated cooking traditional “donko balls,” dumplings made from minced meat and the liver of brown hakeling, at an Italian restaurant in the Marunouchi district in Tokyo.

He spoke about the reconstruction process while cooking the fish in front of customers.

Senior Fukushima official Kaneko said consumers at events like this tend to convey what they see, taste and experience to others, helping in the 3-year-old struggle to win over a reluctant public.