Made in Fukushima: Aided by rigorous radiation checks, farmers and fishermen struggle to win trust

by Anne Beade

AFP-JIJI

The pumpkin is diced, the chicken carved and the eggs beaten into an omelet, but the people preparing the food are not chefs — they are scientists testing produce from the Fukushima region.

Seven years after the March 2011 nuclear crisis caused by devastating tsunami, rigorous testing shows no radioactive threat from Fukushima’s produce, officials and experts say.

But local producers say they still face crippling suspicion from consumers.

More than 205,000 food items have been tested at the Fukushima Agricultural Technology Centre since March 2011, with Japan setting a standard of no more than 100 becquerels of radioactivity per kilogram (bq/kg).

The European Union, by comparison, sets that level at 1,250 bq/kg and the U.S. at 1,200.

In the last year, the center says no cultivated produce or farm-reared livestock have exceeded the government’s limit. In all just nine samples out of tens of thousands were over the limit: eight from fish bred in inland ponds and one from a sample of wild mushrooms.

Each day, more than 150 samples are prepared, coded, weighed and then passed through a “germanium semiconductor detector.” Rice undergoes screening elsewhere.

While radiation affected several regions, which have their own testing processes, Fukushima’s program is the most systematic, testament to the particularly severe reputational damage it suffered.

In the wake of the nuclear crisis, a wide-scale decontamination program has been carried out in Fukushima.

It can’t be done in forests, where thick tree growth makes it impractical. But elsewhere topsoil has been removed, trees washed down and potassium sprinkled to reduce cesium uptake.

But the testing process is the cornerstone of efforts to win consumer trust.

“Some people are still worried, in Japan and abroad, so we want to continue to explain to people in other prefectures and in foreign countries that our products are safe,” said Kenji Kusano, an official at the testing center.

And occasionally radioactivity is detected, for example in wild plants and mushrooms, which are destroyed if they exceed the government standard.

Kusano said testing will remain important as residents gradually return.

“When residents come back to areas that are off-limits at the moment and start producing their own fruit and vegetables, they must be tested,” he said.

The Fukushima disaster has devastated a previously flourishing local agricultural sector.

“Profits have not yet reached pre-2011 levels and prices remain below the national average,” said Fukushima representative Nobuhide Takahashi.

The situation is even worse for fisherman, many of whom have survived only on compensation paid by the manager of the defunct Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.

The tsunami destroyed ports across the region and demand for Fukushima seafood is low despite an even stricter testing standard of 50 bq/kg.

“When we catch fish and send it to market in Tokyo, some people don’t want to buy it,” said Kazunori Yoshida, director of Iwaki’s fishing cooperative.

As a result, fishermen brought in just 3,200 tons of seafood in the area last year, down from 24,700 in 2010.

The problem remains one of perception, despite the fact that independent testing confirms what government labs show.

The Minna no Data (Our Data) NGO carries out its own testing and spokesman Hidetake Ishimaru said the group was “very surprised” by the “mostly very low levels” it found in Fukushima produce.

At the international level, there has been some progress: Of the 54 countries that imposed restrictions on food from Fukushima after 2011, 27 have lifted the bans.

And another 23 markets, including the United States and European Union, have relaxed restrictions, though some regional neighbors, including China and South Korea, have kept bans in place.

The perception problem persists domestically too, with surveys showing some Japanese consumers still avoid Fukushima produce.

Experts say the government’s science-based approach has done little to convince people.

“Nobody believes, just by shouting safety,” said Katsumi Shozugawa, a University of Tokyo professor who has studied Fukushima food safety. He said government testing was appropriate but attempts to convince consumers remained “poor.”

Tomiko Yamaguchi, sociology professor at Tokyo’s International Christian University, said some consumers were torn between fear over Fukushima produce and solidarity with residents there.

“People can’t talk about these things. It’s almost like a taboo,” she said.

“But regardless . . . if you are very concerned for your children, it doesn’t matter if there’s scientific evidence or not.”

On a farm in Fukushima where peaches hang ready to be picked, 14th-generation farmer Chusaku Anzai said he was resigned to the situation.

“There’s no point wasting our energy trying to convince those who don’t want our products,” the 69-year-old said, his face worn by five decades of farm work.

“We can’t do anything but wait for them to change their minds.”