Jittery times for Japan's food industry

A woman passes spinach from Ibaraki Prefecture on sale at a market, March 20, 2011, in Tokyo.
AP Photo/Gregory Bull
A woman passes spinach from Ibaraki Prefecture on sale at a market, March 20, 2011, in Tokyo.
AP Photo/Gregory Bull

I think it would be a fair assumption to say that, at one point or other in their lives, every person on Earth has had someone tell them, "You are what you eat." That's a bit of a scary proposition given all the things that you can unwittingly consume, trusting that someone out there is making sure it won't kill you. Take peanut butter, for example. It was a staple in the lunch boxes of children across American until late 2008, when a salmonella outbreak tied to a peanut plant in Georgia killed nine people and sickened another 700 in 46 states. In fact, every year there are an estimated 76 million cases of food borne illness in the United States alone.

But it's been a long time since anyone in the U.S. has had to worry about possible radiation tainted food. More than 30 years actually, since the last time it would have happened was in 1979 with the Three Mile Island disaster. Some anti-nuclear activists have claimed nuclear emissions from the plant led to a plague of disease and death in livestock and reduced farm yard fertility rates, but Pennsylvania's Department of Agriculture denied a link. A correlation between milk laced with radioactive iodine and thousands of cases of thyroid cancer, however, was established after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. But that didn't have much of an impact in the states.

Complete coverage: Disaster in Japan
Video: Nuclear radiation threatens Japan's food, economy

Now, a quarter of a century later, the world is wondering whether it is safe to consume Japanese produce after the nuclear crisis in Fukushima. Who knows for sure? But many international organizations and countries aren't willing to take any chances. The World Health Organization recently said radiation found in some produce will pose a more serious problem than first anticipated. And that's put Asia on high alert.

China quickly announced that it would monitor food imported from Japan for signs of radiation and South Korea widened its radiation inspections of Japanese products from fresh to processed foods. Taiwan is also leery of Japanese produce after the country's Atomic Energy Council found trace amounts of radiation in a shipment of beans over the weekend. Rather than take a chance, those beans are being destroyed. And at luxury hotels in Hong Kong, high-end sushi restaurants in Malaysia and suppliers to 5-star restaurants in New Delhi the import of Japanese food has been suspended. Even in Japan, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has stopped sales of all food products coming out of Fukushima.

The U.S. is also taking a cautious approach. The FDA has set up a system to flag all shipments of food products from Japan, paying special attention to imports from the affected region. The import staff will review all Japanese shipments to see if they need to be examined and sampled or if they're safe to move on to market.

Worried that the negative attention could bring farmers to the brink of financial ruin, top Japanese officials have said that Tokyo Electric Power Co. -- the operators of the ill-fated nuclear plant -- would compensate farmers for monetary losses due to any sales stoppages. What remains unclear is what would be done for farmers throughout the country who don't have radiation issues, but who have been tainted by association. That's a serious concern. Japan exports around 200-thousand tons of fruits, vegetables, dairy products and seafood to countries like Hong Kong, the United States and China each year. It's a nearly $5 billion industry. And it could be facing tough times ahead.

In that aforementioned 2008 peanut scare, problems with cleanliness at a Georgia plant run by the Peanut Corporation of America drove down sales of all brands of peanut butter by 25 percent. An estimated economic hit of $1 billion to an industry that was already hurting from the recession.

Should Japanese farmers expect the same outcome? And is there really a threat? Lucy Craft and I decided to find out. Armed with her knowledge of Japan and my little HD video camera, we set out for a dairy farm in Chiba, outside of Tokyo.

The director of the local agriculture policy division, Kenji Kato, told us they had not seen any increase in radiation levels in Chiba, but that his office was considering which kinds of produce they should begin examining more thoroughly. Since spinach is grown year-round, it was high on the list of targets. But his main concern was more about reputation than radiation. He feared that, like the peanut butter scare in the states, people would stop eating ALL Japanese spinach because of tainted products found 150 miles north, near Fukushima.

Because milk was a radioactive conduit in Chernobyl and increased levels of radiation were already being reported in Japan, we asked to see some local cattle. Kato was worried about the cows catching the flu, so he made us don Tyvek suits and sterile boots. We then had to wade through sterile foot baths before we were taken out to the barns where the cows were spending the day. It was cold and rainy, so the bovine were being kept sheltered for their health. It seemed ironic to me that the bottoms of our brand new rubber boots might not be hygienic enough to trudge through the cow paddies. But this wasn't my sandbox and they were being gracious enough to let us play in it for an hour or so.

Furthermore, we wanted to get some video of a cow being milked, but the owners of the farm denied our request. For starters, they told us, the cows are milked just twice a day - in the morning and at night. It might throw off their schedule if they milked them in the early afternoon, when we were there. For one cow, it wouldn't be that big of a deal. But milking just one cow would be the problem. Evidently, the cows get jealous of one another and if one gets milked they would ALL demand similar treatment.

From the cattle corral, we went to a local farmer's market where the manager, Tanaka, acknowledged that he had gotten queries from customers about whether his perishable products were safe. He had been asked by the government to pull some local greens from his shelves, but so far, spinach was still for sale. And though he was happy to comply with government mandates, he wished he was being given more direction. "If radiation levels are low enough to not pose any health threat, so that you can get rid of most of it by washing carefully, we'd like the government to come right out and say so instead of banning or forcing us to keep it off the shelves," he told us. Fortunately for Tanaka's bottom line, the customers we spoke with said they weren't overly concerned about the threat...and said a little cesium, that may or not be there, certainly wasn't going to stop them from eating their vegetables.

Yoshihro Ikeuchi, executive director of the Japan Chemical Analysis Center, told us those customers had the right idea. "Barring the area directly around the nuke power plant, there is absolutely no reason to worry about eating food from other areas," he said after making us wait more than hour to chat with him, despite the fact that we had made an appointment. Since the Japanese value time and dislike rudeness, we knew he had to be overwhelmed to have kept us cooling our heels for so long. And it was understandable; Ikeuchi is a busy man these days with responsibility for one of the main labs that tests radioactivity in produce. When we were finally able to connect, he showed us a tube full of chopped spinach from Fukushima and told us how he measured gamma rays emanating from the produce by placing it inside a large detection device. Readings can be completed in an hour.

Despite the grave prognostications in the press, he was optimistic about produce even in the hardest hit regions, like Fukushima where sea water near the plant tested 126 times higher than the legal limit for radioactive iodine. It is a place where people were being warned not to drink the tap water. He told us that radiation levels in produce would steadily fall once there were no more nuclear emissions from the plant. His belief was that, though the outlook might look bleak at present, the fear and the frenzy to avoid certain foods would soon pass.

If he's correct, it would be good news for Japan. The United States, alone, imports more than $250 million worth of agriculture and seafood products each year from Japan. And the U.S. is only responsible for about 14 percent of Japan's total agricultural income.

But even if the Japanese get a handle on the food scare, it could just be the beginning. Auto maker Nissan has already released a statement saying all vehicles leaving the island nation will be monitored for traces of radiation. Other prominent car companies in Japan are expected to follow suit, issuing statements they hope will allay fears that their cars are radioactive.

It leads one to wonder what's next...could it be Hello Kitty? That would actually be a big blow -- the company won't discuss revenues related to the fiscally-sound feline, but Wikipedia says licensing arrangements for the cartoon character are worth anywhere from $10 to $500 billion a year.

And, with no offense intended, while I can't see myself buying any Hello Kitty products in the future, I will still ride in Japanese cars and I've been eating local food since I arrived in Tokyo more than a week ago. I wonder if all the attention might actually make the products safer. You rarely get the chance to know when or where danger is lurking...at least this is one devil we do know about...and can watch out for.