Recent lack of tainted Fukushima rice raises doubts about blanket radiation checks

JIJI

The blanket radiation checks conducted on rice grown in meltdown-hit Fukushima Prefecture have recently come under debate because none with radiation levels exceeding the safety limit has been found in recent years.

Some residents, including rice producers, want to continue the current system because there are consumers who still shun Fukushima produce. But conducting the checks is costly and requires a lot of manpower.

The Fukushima Prefectural Government hopes to make a decision by year-end on whether to alter the radiation checks starting with next year’s crop, officials said.

The blanket checks were introduced after many parts of the prefecture were tainted by radioactive fallout released by the March 2011 triple core meltdown at the tsunami-hit Fukushima No. 1 power plant, managed by Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.

The rice is checked bag by bag before shipment, with the safety threshold set at 100 becquerels per kilogram. Bags that pass inspection get certification labels before entering the distribution channels.

According to Fukushima officials, the rice harvested last year and checked for radiation by the end of September came to 10.26 million bags. To cover the inspection expenses, the prefectural government collects ¥5 billion from Tepco each year. Some ¥500 million to ¥600 million in personnel expenses are covered by state subsidies.

The prefecture checked 53.13 million bags of rice for radiation between 2012 and 2016 at a total cost of ¥30.5 billion. The blanket check system began with the 867 bags from the 2012 harvest, which turned up 71 bags with excess radiation.

No tainted bags of rice were found between 2014 and 2016.

As of Oct. 25, radiation levels stood below the minimum detectable level of 25 becquerels for 99.99 percent of the 2016 rice that underwent the checks. The absence of tainted rice has led some people to start questioning the blanket checks. One critic said continuing the system might have the unintended effect of fueling consumer concern about Fukushima rice.

To address the issue, the prefecture organized a group consisting of people from agricultural and consumer groups in July and asked it to study the checks based on the opinions of more than 300 farmers and seven wholesalers in the Tokyo metropolitan area. It will also conduct an online survey of 2,000 consumers nationwide.

Hisao Tomita, a farmer working in the city of Fukushima, called for continuing the blanket check system even though it is burdensome for producers as well.

As long as Fukushima rice is affected by negative rumors, radiation checks should be maintained even if they have to be scaled back, he said.