FUKUSHIMA – For years, the government has sought to convince consumers that food from Fukushima is safe despite the nuclear disaster. But will it serve the prefecture’s produce at the Tokyo Olympics?
It’s a thorny subject for the authorities. They pitched the Olympics in part as a chance to showcase the recovery of areas affected by the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster.
Government officials tout strict checks on food from the prefecture as evidence the produce is completely safe, but it remains unclear whether athletes and sports teams from around the world will be convinced.
In Fukushima, producers are keen to see their products served in the Olympic Village and have submitted a bid to the organizers.
“Fukushima Prefecture has put forward food from 187 producers and is second only to Hokkaido when it comes to meeting the specified criteria in terms of range of products,” said Shigeyuki Honma, assistant director general of the prefectural government’s agriculture and forestry planning division.
“Fukushima wants to serve athletes its rice, its fruits, beef and vegetables. But the committee still has to decide.”
In the years since the nuclear disaster, when tsunami overwhelmed the reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, strict measures have been in place to screen all manner of local produce.
And officials say the figures speak for themselves.
Japan allows a maximum of 100 becquerels of cesium radioactivity per kilogram. The European Union, by comparison, sets that level at 1,250 Bq/kg and the U.S. at 1,200.
According to officials, from April 2018 to March, 9.21 million bags of rice were examined with not a single one exceeding the Japanese limit.
The same for 2,455 samples of fruit and vegetables, 4,336 pieces of meat and 6,187 ocean fish.
“Only river fish and wild mushrooms have on just six occasions been found to exceed the limits,” said Kenji Kusano, director of the Fukushima Agricultural Technology Center in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, the government’s main screening site.
But the figures have only gone some way to reassuring foreign officials: Numerous countries including China, South Korea and the U.S. maintain restrictions on the import of some or all produce from Fukushima.
South Korea, currently locked in a dispute with Japan over wartime issues, has been vocal about its concerns ahead of the Olympics, even raising the possibility of bringing in its own kitchen and food.
“We have requested the Olympic organizers to provide objective data verified by an independent third body,” the South Korean Sports and Olympic Committee said in a statement earlier this year.
“Since Japan repeatedly said its food from Fukushima is safe, we have demanded they provide statistics and data to back up their claims,” an official with the committee said.
The position underlines a long-running problem for Japan: While it points to its extensive, government-mandated checks as proof of safety, many abroad feel the government is not an objective arbiter.
“Generally, Japanese citizens have faith in the government, and we haven’t felt the need to have checks carried out by independent parties,” Kusano said.
But lingering questions have left some officials feeling that “perhaps (third-party checks) may be important from the point of view of foreigners,” he added.
The International Olympic Committee has said it is still weighing how to handle the matter.
“Food menus and catering companies for the Olympic Village are under discussion and have yet to be defined,” a spokesman said.
Tokyo Olympics organizers say promoting areas affected by the 2011 disaster remains a key goal.
“Supporting the area’s reconstruction efforts through the sourcing of its food and beverage products is one of our basic strategies; we are therefore seriously considering doing this,” organizing committee spokesman Masa Takaya said.
He said rules on what food and drink could be brought in independently by teams are still being reviewed.
And, pointing to the strict standards of Japanese checks, he said the organizers “are confident the food we will serve to athletes will be completely safe.”
In Fukushima, producers can only wait and hope for the best.
Tomio Kusano, a pear farmer in Iwaki on the Fukushima coast, struggled enormously after the disaster.
“My world really collapsed, but I never thought for a second of quitting,” the orchardist said.
And his perseverance is finally beginning to pay off: “I don’t get subsidies any more. My pears are inspected and there are no problems. They are selling well again in Japan, and Vietnam has started to import them.”