Mail-order food-delivery companies and cooperatives have long been among the leading campaigners for — and custodians of — food safety in Japan.

Although they are small in scale compared with major supermarket chains, since they first began to appear in the 1960s and ’70s these groupings have garnered a loyal community of health-conscious and ecologically minded consumers who, as members, order food from them through catalogues every week.

To differing degrees, these organizations have also championed the idea that, by building and fostering long-term relationships with farmers and other food producers, they can not only deliver safer, organic food to people, but also institute social change by facilitating direct exchange between suppliers and consumers and taking joint action on wider related issues such as the environment and the government’s policies on food.

Daichi wo Mamoru Kai, a Chiba-based company founded by Kazuyoshi Fujita, is a prime example. Fujita, a 64-year-old former student radical, founded the organic food delivery business in 1975 after realizing, he says, that putting one pesticide-free, safe radish on the market is more pressing than chanting anti-government slogans or staging peace demonstrations on the streets.

At the time of the group’s launch, Japan was just beginning to face the consequences of its hurried economic recovery from the ruins of World War II, with widespread air and water pollution from industrial complexes causing mercury poisoning, asthma and other health problems. Even so, Daichi’s message took time to gain traction.

“When we started our organic farming movement, very few farmers were interested, and even our consumers were in the minority, like mothers with children with atopic dermatitis,” Fujita recalled recently at Daichi’s office in Roppongi, Tokyo, where the lights were off and the windows were wide open to let air in. “To grow things organically is easier said than done. You have to keep bending down to manually pick out weeds, and deal with insects. … We have cleared these issues (with farmers) step by step.”

Now, in the wake of March 11’s triple disasters — the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and tsunami, and then the nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima No.1 nuclear power plant — these guardians of safe food in Japan are torn between supporting their longtime partners in the farming/fishing sectors in the afflicted regions of Tohoku and northern Kanto, and their consumers, who expect them to offer radiation-free, or minimally irradiated food.

The harsh reality is, however, that no food distributors have been able to provide food from these regions labeled “radiation-free.” In fact, even the most environmentally conscious, anti-nuclear-power food providers have had no option but to go along with the government-stipulated safety limits, set at the end of March, of 2,000 becquerels/kg of iodine-131 for vegetables and fish, and 500 becquerels/kg of cesium-134 and cesium-137 combined for vegetables, meat, fish and eggs — levels that a wide variety of domestic produce now no longer exceeds. Prior to March 11, there were no such government standards for domestic produce.

However, if Daichi and similar distributors were to cease patronizing their many suppliers affected by the disasters, they would lose their source of income from tomorrow.

“A lot of our suppliers happened to be concentrated in the Tohoku region, and one of our mushroom growers in Minami-Sanriku (in Miyagi Prefecture) was actually killed by the tsunami,” he said. “There were many others whose homes, fishing boats and processing plants were washed away. Our biggest issue since the disaster has been how to support these people.”

After the disasters, Daichi lost no time in appealing to its 100,000 members to donate money to its suppliers affected by the magnitude-9 megaquake and tsunami. It has raised ¥90 million so far, and the money keeps flowing in.

In contrast, another attempt by the group to help those farmers — by starting to market a range of vegetables grown in Fukushima and the surrounding Ibaraki and Gunma prefectures — has met with mixed reactions.

Fujita said that the company currently sells about 2,000 of these “Cheer Up by Eating” units every week to mostly elderly customers who buy the produce “out of feelings of gratitude for providing them with safe, organic food over the years.”

But his office has also been bombarded with “cries for help” from customers with completely different sentiments. These callers — who numbered up to 2,000 a day after cesium levels twice the safety limit for infants were detected at a water-treatment plant in Tokyo in late March — were mostly young mothers with small children, he said, and they were skeptical of safety assurances from the government and demanding that Daichi provide less-irradiated food.

“Many of them said they would stop buying from us if we sold veggies containing ones from Fukushima and northern Kanto,” Fujita said. “Others were anxious whether we could deliver mineral water, whether we were testing the veggies for radiation, and if they could really trust what the government says.”

Part of the moral dilemma facing Fujita’s group and others in the field stems from the fact that radiation contamination, unlike other food-safety threats such as pesticides or additives, is something that farmers and fishermen play absolutely no part in introducing to their products.

Another group in the same predicament is Seikatsu Club, a co-op that serves 350,000 households in Hokkaido and the Tohoku, Kanto, Chubu and Kinki regions, and has dealt in low-pesticide, additive-free, non-genetically-modified — and less-irradiated — food for decades. Due to the ongoing Fukushima nuclear disaster, however, it has declared a “state of emergency” and on April 12 suspended its previous self-imposed 37 becquerel-per-kg limit for cesium in its produce.

That limit had been set by Seikatsu Club following the 1986 Chernobyl accident which, despite occurring 8,000 km away from Japan, led to radioactive particles coming to earth here. Fortunately, though, that year only one tea product from Mie Prefecture was found to exceed the cesium limit, forcing it to be withdrawn from sale to the co-op’s members. The following year, when it passed all the checks, it was put back on sale by the group.

The reasoning for the 37-becquerel threshold was more psychological than academic, officials acknowledge, saying it was in response to a government decision back then to impose a safety limit for cesium of 370 becquerels per kg for imported foods.

But this time around, because of the scale of the radiation leaks, it is practically impossible for the group to adhere to the same logic and impose a threshold 10 times tougher than the government’s, said Akira Ishii, an official of Seikatsu Club.

As a result of it abandoning its 37-becquerel limit, though, the group soon faced a barrage of angry calls and petitions from its members, some of whom voiced disappointment at its change of policy and canceled their membership.

However, Ishii, said it is just not realistic for the group to keep the old standard, as it is not able to compensate the huge numbers of farmers who would be affected.

“It’s totally understandable for consumers to turn to us, looking for radiation-free food,” Ishii said. “But the truth of the matter is that there is no Noah’s Ark (to take people away from all this).”

Ishii also voiced fears that much of the nation’s primary industry could be obliterated if the farmers and fishermen in the Tohoku and northern Kanto regions have safety standards imposed on their produce that are beyond their power to achieve.

Nonetheless, amid mounting consumer concerns, food distributors are beefing up independent testing of their produce and are spending millions of yen on dosimeters and advanced equipment that minutely analyzes radiation levels in food.

But even with such devices, some of which cost more than ¥15 million, their tests will for the time being be restricted to measuring levels of radioactive cesium and iodine. That’s because to test for contamination by radioactive strontium-90, uranium and plutonium requires a high level of training and technique, and even government agencies don’t have enough trained personnel for the task, said Yoshiaki Uchida, another Daichi official who is in charge of quality assurance at its distribution center in Narashino, Chiba Prefecture.

Since early May, Daichi has been screening all of its food for radioactive iodine and cesium at the center. So far, none has exceeded the limits set by the government, he said.

In addition, now that more than three months have passed since explosions at the Fukushima nuclear plant released radioactivity into the air, and as the levels of radiation have declined for many food items from Fukushima and neighboring prefectures, the government should lower the threshold in order to make consumers feel safer about food, said Fumiyo Mihara, an official of Palsystem, a food-distribution cooperative with more than 600,000 active users.

Like Daichi and Seikatsu Club, she said that by the winter the co-op will also have bought radiation monitors and will have begun to check its food.

Earlier this month Daichi also started selling a range of mostly organic vegetables grown exclusively in western Japan. Despite the relatively high price — ¥2,180 for six or seven items (including a ¥100 donation to the farmers) — the vegetable set is exceedingly popular and is now selling 2,000 units each week. Daichi now has plans to increase the supply of these sets to 3,000 units or more in the coming weeks.

“Wanting to protect farmers and not eating their food might appear contradictory, but it is natural among consumers in the same country to feel this way,” Fujita said. “We are going through a lot of wavering as we make our decisions.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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