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Is selling radioactive food ethical? part II

May 20, 2012 Comments off

Students must eat all the food on the plates or risk punishment. These junior high school students must finish all remaining food before being allowed to empty their trays.

Part II of a special report. Read part I here.

Some supermarkets have come up with their own guidelines. This is opposed by the government even though consumers say it gives consumer confidence. Is anyone allowed to question the Japanese government when it comes to radiation? Even those in parliament have trouble doing so.

For those who eat lunch at Japanese schools, the situation is far more difficult. There are teachers and administration officials who single out students who refuse to eat food their parents advise them not to. Some are humiliated, shamed or even bullied into eating food they consciously object to.  Students, in short, must eat regardless of whether they feel it is safe or not. One female Japanese member of the Upper House of Parliament, Akira Matsu, related the story of one a pregnant mother of four to the Budget Committee on September 29, 2011 (see here). In her comments, she said “she and all four children had tested positive for cesium,” so “she told her children not to drink milk in school lunches.” The result? The teacher forced the students to “step forward…put milk in a bucket and explain why they refused to drink it.”

This is no easy task for a western primary school student, but is magnitudes more difficult for the notoriously shy Japanese children. The teacher then shouted, “Those who refuse to drink this are not Fukushima people, and not qualified to live here either!” Matsu says, “They were treated like traitors during the war [WWII].” When Japanese government ministers in parliament heard this they began to laugh, to which Matsu replied, “Chief Cabinet Secretary, listen to me without laughing. Please don’t laugh. This is no laughing matter.” In the context of some school children studying some areas that have high levels of radiation from fallout, and increase their exposure beyond the annual recommended limit (here).

Those unfamiliar with Japanese school systems and hierarchy of power may think this is no big deal, but for Japanese students it is virtually unheard of for children to openly oppose a teacher – even rarer is one who would do so in front of an entire class. It simply is not done and, where it is, the student is often berated to the point of tears, which happens regularly when nine-year old girl cannot eat all the food on her plate and punished and forced to eat the food, even if it means missing class and spending two hours in the teacher’s room crying until she does. In such a case the child just cannot eat the food because it is too much and is not allowed to choose which plates to eat (the teachers force all students to eat the same amount regardless of appetite/size of student); this is not because of refusal due to radiation.  To further put things into context, this is a school system that openly allows children to be hit by teachers, a fact which is routinely ignored by Japanese media and education officials.

Needless to say, few students have enough courage to stand up to a teacher engaging in such bully like behaviour like the one mentioned by Matsu, who verbally berated a child for not eating food the student felt was unsafe. What happens when the bully is the teacher, the school of the Japanese government or business? What will Japanese parents and families do to protect themselves in a society that forces people to conform?

Civis Journal

Is selling radioactive food ethical?

May 18, 2012 Comments off

Farmers protest outside Tepco in Tokyo. Source: Telegraph.

Part I of a special report

The effects of the nuclear disaster have created moral problems for farmers in the Fukushima area. They, like most people, need to earn a living, and in their case such comes from bringing food to market, some of which is now radioactive. Since the Japanese government have not increased the evacuation zone (actually they decreased it from 30km to 20km see here), many of the farmers can expect little to no compensation anytime soon. Relocation to a different part of Japan to begin a new farm, therefore, is not a possibility. Those who grow food in affected areas are doing so in radioactive soil. Ito Toshihiko, an organic food supplier in Fukushima, worries about selling food in future. “How can I continue to sell my product if I’m not willing to eat it myself?,” he said to Al Jazeera. “We must protect our neighbours, our children. We can’t trust the information that we are being given [by the government]” (see here).

That leaves farmers and suppliers in zones where harvesting is allowed in a difficult position. Not only must they test food, an expensive and time-consuming process, but have to deal with the decreased marketability of their products. The burden falls on them, and they had nothing to do with the nuclear accident, they argue. Many residents of Japan no longer trust the food from areas hit by radiation. The Japanese government have been blaming “baseless rumors” or “the foreign media” for the farmers’ inability to sell radioactive food instead of looking at the cause of the real problem: radiation in the soil.

Areas like Ibaraki, which are situated close to Tokyo, have measurable levels of caesium in the rice. In August 2011 the New York Times reported at least one rice sample that had “52 becquerels per kilogram,” which was below the then 500 Bq/kg limit set by Tokyo (today’s limit is 100 here), but still had radiation. Whilst there is a lot of complacency among Japanese in general, there is a significant numbers who oppose radiation in the food. Some have begun to test food grown near Fukushima like Ichio Muto, as reported in the NY Times (here).  A smaller number shun it completely, especially foreigners and mothers with young children.

An American ex-pat David Moore and his Japanese wife “spent more than $5,000” on equipment to test soil and food, and only feed their son “purified water…and food they are certain is safe.” Mr. Moore told PBS that it is necessary to “cut the food from the market 100% until we can guarantee a certain amount of stability” (here). Mr. Moore is cognizant of the difficulties Japanese farmers face, and feels the best approach would be for the Japanese government to compensate them so that they would not be forced to choose between selling radioactive food or bankruptcy.

To be continued in part II

Civis Journal

Japanese Government wants you to eat radioactive food: Part VI

May 16, 2012 1 comment

Japanese workers with tea. Tea absorbs a large amount of radiation and tea as far south as Shizuoka has been affected by Fukushima’s radiation. Some are claiming that radiation is “harmless” and that drinking radioactive tea is “healthy.” Source: CNN

This is part VI of a spacial report on radiation in Japanese food. Click here for part V.

The situation with tea in the Fukushima area is worrisome to say the least. On March 23, the Mainichi newspaper reported  that a Fukushima resident’s tea from May 2011 measured 24,700 Bq/kg (Japanese here, English translation here). That is 49.4 times the limit of 500 Bq/kg set by the government. Though the tea was not sold and there were bans on certain food products last year, that would not necessarily affect a private citizen’s use of tea grown in his/her garden. Home gardens are quite common in rural areas and suburban areas, and school children all over Japan often go on trips to small tea fields to pick and later brew the leaves. They also pick strawberries, potatoes and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Have school children picked and eaten local produce in the Fukushima City area? What about residents who have a garden in the back yard? Have any of them eaten from their gardens? What percent of local food is in the school lunches or general diet daily? Whilst foreign governments may not worry about these questions, Japanese mothers do.

Whilst one cannot use this one elevated sample of radiation in a garden to reach conclusions about the radiological contamination of gardens in Fukushima City, one must remember that this was not an isolated incident. In December 2011, “hot spots of up to 37 microSieverts per hour in a garden in suburban Watari,” reported Greenpeace (my emphasis, article here). The data indicate that residents simply living in the area waiting for decontamination “are at risk of being exposed to over ten times the 1 milliSievert per year international maximum for radiation doses” (the range of 1mSv/year to 3mSv/year is usually considered normal background radiation, as per the NRC click here). Greenpeace refers to the government’s effort to decontaminate as “incompetent” and one that is “risking health” of residents. There have been checks of background radiation, but of the gardens? Would a blanket ban be appropriate? We do not know the answers to these questions.

A serious investigation of locally grown food might confirm the suspicion of widespread contamination (and it might not). That is, however, not what is going to happen according to the Mainichi article. Instead, the authorities are asking individuals to voluntarily bring samples to a facility (not yet in service) in future.  The Mainichi says, “The city plans to increase the number of detectors and will set up 28 testing laboratories in the city by the end of this month.” This could be interpreted as saying there has been inadequate testing of food in Fukushima City for the past year, and that there is no plan to take preventive measures to stop the ingestion of possibly contaminated foods. That such high levels have been found is hardly surprising in an area roughly 60km away from the power plant has high levels of radiation. To put it into perspective, the US government advised its citizens to evacuate to an area a minimum of 80km away from the plant (here). That means Fukushima City itself was considered so unsafe that Americans were told to leave or stay indoors; it goes without saying that food from the area would have been off limits.

The Japanese government never adopted those recommendations, and provides no compensation to residents in the area. How many people have consumed highly radioactive foods grown in their gardens in the past year?

Civis Journal

 

Japanese Government wants you to eat radioactive food: Part V

May 15, 2012 Comments off

Japanese person buying foreign water after levels of radiation spiked in Tokyo’s water supply in March 2011. Source: MSNBC

This is part V of a special series on Japanese food. Click here for part IV.

The Japanese government, shortly after, reversed its decision and eased restrictions on some foods (here), like rice and beef – and the problems have not gone away. It also changed the standards for radiation allowed in food and water, though this is a rather unknown story. In the case of water, it was done overnight, and allowed the government to claim that water, which would be considered unsafe on Thursday, was suddenly safe the next Monday. They simply increased the amount of allowable contaminants in the water supply from the older standards by 30-fold, in the case of iodine (10 Bq/lr to 300 Bq/lr; see this report for a detailed English explanation & here). This was apparently done on March 17th.

If this information is correct, it would mean the high radiation found in Tokyo’s water supply (reported en masse on March 23rd), would have failed the old standard because it had just been changed. CBS reports that one test showed “210 becquerels of iodine-131 per liter,” which they classified as “twice the recommended limit” for children,” but still below the 300 Bq/lr standard for adults. If this is correct, then the only reason the water limit was deemed safe was due to manipulation of the safety levels (here). A cynic might say the Japanese knew the water levels would rise and adjusted the safety limits in anticipation of it.

Be that as it may, the case of food is magnitudes worse (iodine in water is no longer a concern as it is an early byproduct with short half-life. In July it was reported that large amounts of beef with levels of caesium above the government’s safety standard had entered into the food chain (here). Apparently farmers had fed their cows radioactive grain, and their cows had slipped through an inadequate food screening process, ending up on the plates of people all over Japan. Some was even fed to elementary school children in their lunches (here). Though the beef scare is old news, little has improved for food in general, reports Bloomberg, which says that the current checks on Japanese food “nationwide so far are only 1 percent of what Belarus checked in the past year” (here). The government’s position at the time is that even those levels posed no short-term safety risk (yes, they usually avoided saying long-term).

The Japanese themselves have admitted to having inadequate testing equipment and personnel needed to ensure large-scale checks. The Yomiuri newspaper wrote on August 11th that “Many local governments complain they do not have time to inspect rice crops.” In Akita Prefecture, “The maximum number of food samples that can be checked a day is 10,” and the 30 private labs were inundated with other work. Yomiuri puts the numbers into perspective: of all the untold numbers of products from March 11th to the writing of the article on August 11, Fukushima Prefecture is cited as checking a total of “more than 4,000 inspections.” That number accounts for “80 vegetables…10 different fruits…90 kinds of seafood, as well as meat and eggs.” That means there were 4,000 checks for roughly 200 foods, or roughly 5 tests per food. Checking beef or cabbage on average 5 times in 6 months can hardly be expected to raise consumer confidence. As the Yomiuri points out, the checks on those foods were likely to decrease even further, as the meager resources available had to be put towards checking rice. In short, the government does not have the ability (or desire) to inspect the food thoroughly. Might this have something to do with foreign nations and their refusal to buy Fukushima affected food?

To be continued in part VI

Civis Journal

 

Japanese government wants you to eat radioactive food: Part V

May 12, 2012 Comments off

Standards for radiation have been changing a lot, and there are many unanswered questions about the health effects of low dose radiation in food. Source: AP.

This is part of a special on Japanese food. For part IV click here.

The Japanese government, shortly after, reversed its decision and eased restrictions on some foods (here), like rice and beef – and the problems have not gone away. It also changed the standards for radiation allowed in food and water, though this is a rather unknown story. In the case of water, it was done overnight, and allowed the government to claim that water, which would be considered unsafe on Thursday, was suddenly safe the next Monday. They simply increased the amount of allowable contaminants in the water supply from the older standards by 30-fold, in the case of iodine (10 Bq/lr to 300 Bq/lr; see this report for a detailed English explanation & here). This was was apparently done on March 17th. If this information is correct, it would mean the high radiation found in Tokyo’s water supply (reported en masse on March 23rd), would have failed the old standard because it had just been changed. CBS reports that one test showed “210 becquerels of iodine-131 per liter,” which they classified as “twice the recommended limit” for children,” but still below the 300 Bq/lr standard for adults. If this is correct, then the only reason the water limit was deemed safe was due to manipulation of the safety levels (here). A cynic might say the Japanese knew the water levels would rise and adjusted the safety limits in anticipation of it.

Be that as it may, the case of food is magnitudes worse (iodine in water is no longer a concern as it is an early byproduct with short half-life). In July it was reported that large amounts of beef with levels of caesium above the government’s safety standard had entered into the food chain (here). Apparently farmers had fed their cows radioactive grain, and their cows had slipped through an inadequate food screening process, ending up on the plates of people all over Japan. Some was even fed to elementary school children in their lunches (here). Though the beef scare is old news, little has improved for food in general, reports Bloomberg, which says that the current checks on Japanese food “nationwide so far are only 1 percent of what Belarus checked in the past year” (here). The government’s position at the time is that even those levels posed no short-term safety risk (yes, they usually avoided saying long-term).

The Japanese themselves have admitted to having inadequate testing equipment and personnel needed to ensure large-scale checks. The Yomiuri newspaper wrote on August 11th that “Many local governments complain they do not have time to inspect rice crops.” In Akita Prefecture, “The maximum number of food samples that can be checked a day is 10,” and the 30 private labs were inundated with other work. Yomiuri puts the numbers into perspective: of all the untold numbers of products from March 11th to the writing of the article on August 11, Fukushima Prefecture is cited as checking a total of “more than 4,000 inspections.” That number accounts for “80 vegetables…10 different fruits…90 kinds of seafood, as well as meat and eggs.” That means there were 4,000 checks for roughly 200 foods, or roughly 5 tests per food. Checking beef or cabbage on average 5 times in 6 months can hardly be expected to raise consumer confidence. As the Yomiuri points out, the checks on those foods were likely to decrease even further, as the meager resources available had to be put towards checking rice. In short, the government does not have the ability (or desire) to inspect the food thoroughly. Might this have something to do with foreign nations and their refusal to buy Fukushima affected food?

To be continued in part VI

Civis Journal

Japanese government wants you to eat radioactive food: Part IV

May 9, 2012 Comments off

A whale being hunted by the Japanese. This is conducted under the guise of “research,” but the meat ends up on dinner tables all over Japan. Source: The Guardian

This is part IV of a special series of articles. For part III click here.

The Japanese government did not ban all radioactive food, just food over certain limits (500 Bq/kg which is now revised to 100 Bq/kg as of April 1, 2012). This means that food with measurable levels of radiation was sold in untold quantities to an infinite number of people. As the scandals erupted one after the other, the average Japanese began to wonder if the food was safe. This is probably the biggest reason for the collapse in consumer confidence, not “foreign media” or other conspiracy theory nonsense pedaled as fact by a government and media eager to shift the blame for their failures on non-Japanese.

In June 2011, for example, the Japanese caught 17 whales. When they looked at 6 of them, they found “31 becquerels and 24.3 becquerels of radioactive caesium per kilogram in the two whales” (see here). They were caught off the island of Hokkaido, 650 km away from the Fukushima plant. This is not exactly good news. It shows the Japanese justification for whaling (labelled “research”) is a pretty poor one. Why test only 6 of 17 whales if the research is needed? Those other whales might have had radiation in them too. At 31 Bq/kg, they would have passed both the old and new standards on food safety. Did people eat that radioactive meat?

The problem is not isolated to mammals, but is in fish. The Japanese only report figures for caesuim-137 and iodine (which is not present anyway) in the fish tests they conduct. But that does not mean there is no strontium-90. If serious studies were done on fish by the Japanese government, the results might not be good. Even the highly criticised and clearly inadequate studies they are carrying out only serve to show that the majority of fish & sea life tested contain measurable levels of radiation. Fish may not have iodine, but do they have strontium? This is not fear mongering. It is asking a question that must be answered for consumer safety and to restore confidence in the food system.

To be continued in Part V.

Civis Journal

 

Japanese government wants you to eat radioactive food: Part III

May 8, 2012 Comments off

This is employee uses a Geiger counter to test for radiation, which is not a very efficient way to measure radiation in food. Source: AP.

This is part III of a special report. Part II is available here.

This is not to say foreign food is unavailable. It is. But in many cases it is prohibitively expensive or extremely difficult to find. This is due in part to the desire to protect domestic industry from having to compete with foreigners on some of the same food items. So while it is easy to purchase foreign wines, Japan cannot restrict them too much because their own domestic production cannot supply demand. When it comes to rice, a product grown in abundance in Japan, it is virtually impossible to find foreign produced rice in Japanese supermarkets. This is not limited to food, and nations have complained about these practices for years (see here & here). As an example one might recall the dispute between the Clinton Administration and Japan with regard to the difficulty American car manufacturers had in accessing the Japanese market (see here).

If anyone has a history of restricting foreign imports it is Japan. Even if the Japanese are correct, they will be seen as hypocritical in the extreme for going to the WTO to lodge a complaint. Unlike some of the other disputes, radiation is a serious problem. Shortly after the Fukushima disaster the IAEA warned about risks associated with iodine. There was also the WHO spokesman who warned that “it’s a lot more serious than anybody thought in the early days when we thought this kind of problem can be limited to 20 or 30 kilometers.”  The WHO specifically warned people to avoid affected foods like meat, eggs and leafy vegetables near the Fukushima plant. “Eating foods containing radioactive materials could increase the risk of certain types of cancers in the future,” remarked Ben Embarek, a food safety expert with the WHO. Iodine is not a problem today, but caesium-134, 137 and a whole host of other isotopes like strontium, plutonium etc – the majority of which are not even being checked for – are. When it comes to fish, for example, the Japanese only report figures for caesuim-137 and iodine (iodine is not present anymore anyway). But that does not mean there is no strontium-90. If serious studies were done on fish by the Japanese government, the results might not be so savoury. Even the highly criticised and clearly inadequate studies they are carrying out only serve to show that the majority of fish & sea life tested contain measurable levels of radiation.

In the big picture, it was not just foreigners who stopped shipments of Japanese food. It was the Japanese government itself, though in case after case only after it was unable to hide the results of beef, spinach or other embarrassing results. In other words, the Japanese had to restrict radioactive foods to their own domestic market for the very same health concerns foreigners had (here). Then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told the public, “The vegetables will cause no immediate health problems even if temporarily eaten now.” Look at the phrase “immediate health problems.” What does it suggest? If the affects are not “immediate” then they are either non-existent or long-term.  Those who eat them will one day find the answer –  they are the guinea pigs.

To be continued in Part IV

Civis Journal