On the afternoon of March 11, exactly one year after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, around 30 people were invited to lunch a few blocks away from the bustling Shinjuku district of Tokyo — and were deliberately served up fare containing cesium.
The guests, including couples with children and middle-aged men, sat around the table that Sunday waiting for hamburgers hot off the pan.
“This one is 6 becquerels,” said host Mitsuhiro Anada, 40, referring to the radioactive strength of the cesium in the burger. “Please feel free to say no, if you don’t want to eat it. We’ve got some cesium-free items as well.”
Anada runs Mooton Family, a meat processing company, with his wife in northern Iwate Prefecture, where they relocated 16 years ago from Tokyo.
He called on customers who had bought his ham, hamburgers and sausages by mail order to take part in a “gathering to taste cesium beef.”
The main item was hamburgers and stew, both made of beef in which traces of radioactive cesium were found. The readings, however, were far below the government’s provisionally set threshold of 500 becquerels per kilogram.
“I would like consumers to think about what safety means, by providing them with numerical data,” Anada said, explaining his motivation for the unusual event.
Anada has been adamant about using pastured Iwate beef to make his products. This is because he dislikes using meat from livestock raised on imported formula feed.
“Beef fed on wild grass should be safer and taste richer,” said Anada, who has been producing ham and other products without relying on chemical seasonings or additives.
It was in late September that he received a call from a livestock farmer he buys from. He was told: “Cesium has been detected in the beef. It’s lower than the provisionally approved level, but what do you want us to do?”
It was in Fukushima Prefecture where the Fukushima No. 1 power plant was crippled by three reactor meltdowns, but the massive amounts of cesium ejected into the atmosphere over the following months made its way into beef from cows raised in Iwate in late July. Shipments from the entire prefecture were halted shortly afterward.
Although the ban was later lifted, Iwate stepped up inspections and found that almost all of shipments were cesium-free. Among the shipments that turned up positive was the stock Anada was going to buy.
Anada suspected it was positive because the animals may have eaten grass while grazing in the mountains. He checked some of it and found it contained cesium.
“I was particular about organic farming, but that attitude turned out to work against me,” he said.
Anada said he was concerned about the livestock farmers he had been doing business with and felt that if he did not buy their stock, other buyers would drive its price down sharply.
Since last September, he has purchased three head of cattle from the farmers at the regular price, paying roughly ¥1 million.
He then sent out a portion of the delivered meat for radiation checks. The results came in showing 10 to 60 becquerels — lower than the provisional limit of 500. No nationwide comparison was provided for meat from cattle raised outside Tohoku in this report.
Since the readings were below the government limit, he was allowed to sell it. But Anada said it troubled him to just put the meat on the market without letting people know how much cesium it contained.
Anada, who had been keen on publicizing the ingredients he uses and how he makes his products even before the Fukushima crisis, said he did not feel it was acceptable just to release details convenient to the producer but cover up anything negative. “Is that how it should be?” he asked.
At the beef-tasting event, participants expressed mixed reactions.
“Radioactive substances exist in nature, so I’m not worried,” said a dentist in his 40s who came with his elementary school daughter. “It’s a matter of your attitude.” He ate beef stew but selected a cesium-free hamburger for his daughter, he said.
A company employee ate the food to be polite.
“I ate it because this was a rare opportunity to which I was invited, but I would never myself make such a purchase,” the person said.
At around the same time, Anada started selling hamburger online accompanied by a warning that said it had radiation level of 6 becquerels of cesium per kilogram. After a month, only six packs of the meat had been sold, he said.
The contamination wrought by the Fukushima crisis cannot be undone. It is impossible to check all food on the market for radiation, and in reality, those with less than the government-set limit are already on the market.
Cardboard boxes containing the beef Anada bought from his business partners are gradually piling up in the freezer at his meat factory. He now has about 750 kg of the meat, enough to make about 4,500 burgers, in stock.
“By showing recognizable numerical data, I hope everyone will think about how they should face radioactive materials (in food) and live,” Anada said.