Home > Food, Japan > WFP may use radioactive Japanese fish to feed poor

WFP may use radioactive Japanese fish to feed poor

May 26, 2012

This cartoon was published by the IHT, under the control of the New York Times. They apologised for and removed this image in an act of self-censorship after the Japanese government complained. Is it wrong to scrutinise or refuse radioactive food? What about the possibility of giving children in poor countries radioactive food?

The Japanese government says it supports farmers and fishermen by promoting disaster area food products. As part of its efforts it is pressuring other nations to lift restrictions on Japanese food banned after concerns over radiation after the March 11, 2011 nuclear disaster

On March 22, 2012 Koichiro Gemba, Japan’s Foreign Minister, met in Tokyo with his Egyptian counterpart, Mohamed Kamel Amr. They discussed easing food import restrictions along with Japanese development aid (here). The Japanese wanted “further relaxation and removal of such restrictions,” which at the times meant providing documents certifying food safety on radiation, according to Kyodo.

The Noda government has taken steps to increase purchases of fish products by selecting it for food aid. Where will the food come from? The areas affected by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster.

Kyoto reported that it is “a way to dispel fears over radioactive contamination” (here). This will consist of fish products from Aomori, Iwate, Ibaraki and Chiba to be fed to children in “school lunches and other purposes,” in places like Cambodia. This will likely include sending food to the WFP (World Food Programme).

The Japanese say “certified-safe food products” will be used. The question is what levels of radiological contamination will be permitted? Japanese food safety law will permit up to 100 becquerels of caesium per kilogram for domestic consumption. What will the government do to ensure that only radiation free food reaches people in Cambodia? If radioactive food is found, even at low levels, it will only serve to undermine confidence in Japanese food, the stated goal of sending aid in the first place. Notice the food aid to the World Food Program is not to help Cambodians per se but to restore confidence in Japanese food. It is a propaganda campaign under the guise of assistance.  Why might it matter if the Japanese use fish from the areas affected by radiation?

“Of the 13 samples shown from the August 2011 test, all had measurable amounts of radiation. The lowest caesium-137 level is 50.7 and the highest is 556. This test, unlike government tests, provides additional data on caesium-134 which, if combined with 137, shows at least 4 samples above the government’s caesium limit of 500 Bq/kg. The highest combined caesium measurement is 1,053 Bq/kg.”

These are the results of a test Greenpeace conducted last August – not the one the government tried to stop. Based on the lab results conducted, they said last August, “Relying on the government’s inadequate monitoring does not guarantee people’s safety if contaminated seafood reaches the market” (lab results here & Greenpeace’s report here). Ibaraki and Iwate are areas fish products would be used to supply food to the WFP.

Things have not necessarily improved since August. A look at the Japanese government’s own tests done on Iwate fish in the winter reveals caesium levels of 0 to 240 Bq/km, in some 68 samples (see report). The standard was improved to a stricter limit of 100 Bq/kg in April. The report indicates that the majority of fish currently being tested in Japan (65% in February), contains measurable levels of ceasium-137, and may contain caesium-134 as well as any number of isotopes, some of which are not being checked.

Of the 13 samples shown from the August 2011 test, all had measurable amounts of radiation. The lowest caesium-137 level is 50.7 and the highest is 556. This test, unlike government tests, provides additional data on caesium-134 which, if combined with 137, shows at least 4 samples above the government’s caesium limit of 500 Bq/kg. The highest combined caesium measurement is 1,053 Bq/kg. Click on image to enlarge.

Greenpeace sounded the alarm last August when it said the government’s testing “is not done in a way to ensure that only safe products will be distributed.” Not only is the sampling methodology “problematic in and of itself,” but the labelling of is “very loosely interpreted.” Greenpeace says “there’s no established way of tracing where the product came from.” Consumers have no way of knowing if their fish is radioactive and, based on the law, there is no way they can be sure the sure certain foods does not come from certain waters they might wish to avoid. Companies have the option of listing a port rather than the exact location a fish was caught in, meaning two boats that catch fish in the same area can take them to different ports and they can both be listed as being caught in different locations.

For processed fish, the system is even worse, they said. Greenpeace recommended the government create tracking system similar to the one it already uses to track every piece of beef sold in Japan. This and proper labelling, Greenpeace argued, would tell people which particular area the fish were caught in, not just the port. They also suggested listing the “exact degree of contamination,” not leaving it up to the consumer to question its safety. Greenpeace’s test results, discussed on August 8th, they measured “8 types of fish…and 5 samples of seaweed.” Of the fish, all had measurable radiation. “4 samples were clearly above the limit set for consumption,” ranging from 749 Bq/km to 1,053Bq/km of total caesium count. Even more would fail the current standard of 100 Bq/kg.

Will fish with measurable levels of radiation be given to the world’s poor? There are questions of ethics involved. The current system in place is a complete failure, critics like Greenpeace argue. What assurances can the Japanese government give that there will not be scandals? The government’s incompetence resulted in beef and a number of radioactive foods ending up consumed all over Japan last year. The government insists radioactive food is safe, but after they covered up the three meltdowns at Fukushima they have no credibility in the eyes of many. If radioactive fish is fed to some poor child in Cambodia, what will that do for confidence in Japan’s products? Concern seems to only be for that and not the ethical questions if one reads the Japanese government’s statements. The Snow White cartoon the Japanese government wanted censored in the International Herald Tribune seems to be saying what many are too scared to say.

Civis Journal

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