An uphill struggle for food exporters


For many people around the world, food from Japan used to have an image of being among the healthiest around, let alone safe to consume.

That changed after March 11, 2011, when the massive earthquake and tsunami triggered the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, the world’s worst nuclear crisis in a quarter of a century.

The spread of radioactive materials and revelations that some beef cattle and crops grown in its vicinity were contaminated with higher than normal levels of radiation prompted more than 40 countries and territories to restrict imports of food and other agricultural products from Japan, where Fukushima Prefecture was an agricultural powerhouse.

While a handful of the foreign governments have eased or lifted the restrictions and consumers abroad are beginning to think less about the fears of radioactive contamination, efforts to restore Japanese food exports to their previous levels still face an uphill battle a year later.

At an upscale supermarket in Shanghai, a special section was set up in mid-February to promote Japanese products from snacks and dried noodles to sake.

“Finally, products have begun to come in,” said Seiji Masudo, the supermarket’s general manager. The store handled around 3,000 kinds of Japan-made products before the disaster, but now that number has fallen to about one-tenth in the wake of China’s ban on imports from 10 prefectures, including Fukushima and Tokyo.

Elsewhere in Shanghai, a 34-year-old man from Beijing who visited a major exhibition of Japanese products in search of sake noted that many people are still worried that food from Japan may be contaminated with radioactive substances.

“It will probably take more time for that to be resolved,” he said.

In Brazil, which has a Japanese community 1.5 million strong, food imports from Japan have largely been replaced with similar products from China, South Korea and the United States following a temporary full import ban on Japanese food products.

“I saw ramen (at a store) for the first time in a while so I bought it, and was disappointed to find out later that it was U.S.-made,” said Machiko Kuroda, a 66-year-old woman who migrated from Japan to Brazil.

At the end of February, a total of 47 countries and territories had some kind of restriction on imports from Japan, according to the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry. It said exports of agricultural and marine products as well as food products in 2011 fell 8.3 percent from the previous year to ¥451.3 billion.

With prospects for restoring exports looking dim, food exporters are worried about the future. But there are also encouraging developments.

Some efforts, including by the Aomori Prefectural Government, to demonstrate the safety of food products have paid off.

Aomori Gov. Shingo Mimura has gone to Taiwan three times since July to try to convince importers that apples grown in his prefecture are thoroughly tested and safe to eat, while a local apple export association invited about 70 traders from Taiwan to show them how the apples in the prefecture are grown and tested for radioactive substances.