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New radiation levels not enough to improve food safety

April 4, 2012

A person examines a yogurt cup. Even though the government claims its levels of radiation are sufficient, there is no way for most people to be sure of the levels of radiation in a product because they are posted.

“The health ministry says no food or drink product will be permitted to be sold if it has radioactive cesium above the government-set limit.” Sounds good, except the Japanese government are making a promise they cannot keep – and they know it. The limit at which food items could be sold set at 500 Bq/kg is now 100 Bq/kg as of April 1 (see levels) and, while welcomed by many, is not going to be easy to achieve.

“The ministry said local municipalities will be responsible for carrying out testing and that any item measuring above the set standard will not be permitted to be sold.” This means the burden is falling to those least equipped to do it. Aside from a lack of equipment to measure radiation levels in food, there are not enough inspectors to do the work. If that in itself were not enough, some of the machines currently in use are not accurate enough to comply with the new standards. “Some inspection instruments owned by local governments will be unable to handle the new cesium limits without updates as the new limits require more accurate instruments,” reported the Yomiuri newspaper. Only with upgrades and longer tests can they ensure accurate measurements, a problem that affects numerous municipalities (see report).

In the meantime, those places that lack the necessary equipment will not have accurate readings, and even if they did the amount of items they check are too few to inspire confidence. Since January 2012, eight prefectures reported 421 food items (mostly fish) with levels of over 100 Bq/kg of caesium (see report). These same sort of tests on fish were criticised last year by Greenpeace as inadequate, and with the large amount of radiation that landed on areas near Fukushima, greater checking of products might reveal higher numbers of contaminated foods (or they might not).

What is clear is that what was safe last Saturday is not considered safe today. The fact remains that food with radiation will still be sold, and consumers have no way of knowing what levels – if any – are in the food they buy, unless a shop posts readings. Greenpeace asked the Japanese government to do this in August. Only a few supermarkets offer specific readings, while some of the larger ones require testing for meat. Vegetables fruit and fish are a whole different matter, however.

While mothers and activists can take heart in knowing their activism played a role in influencing the new standards, they cannot enjoy radiation free food, and everyone eating Japanese food from certain prefectures understands that each bite might be contaminated with nuclear waste – even if the new standard is considered “safe.”

Staff Report,

Civis Journal

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