Mercury level acute; store pulls dolphin

Meat sample from Okuwa chain contained levels 13.5 times state limit


A large supermarket chain in western Japan has permanently discontinued sales of dolphin meat after learning that mercury levels in a sample purchased at one of its outlets greatly exceeded government safety levels.

Wakayama Prefecture-based supermarket chain Okuwa Co. pulled dolphin meat from shelves in late December, store official Hiroyuki Sakaguchi said Wednesday.

The move came days after Boyd Harnell, an investigative reporter working for The Japan Times, told store officials that a government-certified food laboratory found 5.40 micrograms of mercury per gram of meat in a sample from a striped dolphin fillet he had purchased at Super Okuwa, a large retail outlet in Shingu, Wakayama Prefecture.

That is 13.5 times the 0.4 micrograms per gram level permitted by the government.

Earlier last year, Harnell had advised Okuwa that a different laboratory found mercury levels of 1.77 ppm in another sample of dolphin meat he had bought at the same outlet. Store officials at that time declined to remove the meat from their shelves.

According to an e-mail to Harnell from another company official, Okuwa has submitted a sample of meat to a laboratory for independent confirmation. That result is pending, and the official said the company will not publicize the test results.

Dolphin meat, popular in certain parts of Japan, often contains high levels of mercury, and the government has advised pregnant women to limit consumption over concerns the toxin may cause birth defects. Critics say, however, that stores do not put warning labels on the product.

Sakaguchi stressed that dolphin meat was sold only at “a limited number” of the retailer’s 134 stores. He did not say what role The Japan Times investigation played in the decision to pull the product.

But the decision to discontinue sales follows a series of reports this paper ran on Japan’s annual dolphin slaughter, which usually numbers in the thousands, and trade in its meat, including the latest corralling and killing of the mammals last November in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture.

Save Japan Dolphins, a coalition of animal-rights groups from Japan and abroad, hailed the store’s move.