Radiation fans food fears in Japan
Published : Mar 21, 2011 - 18:29
Updated : Mar 21, 2011 - 18:29
TOKYO (AP) ― At a bustling Tokyo supermarket Sunday, wary shoppers avoided one particular bin of spinach.

The produce came from Ibaraki prefecture in the northeast, where radiation was found in spinach grown up to 120 kilometers from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant. Another bin of spinach ― labeled as being from Chiba prefecture, west of Tokyo ― was sold out.

“It’s a little hard to say this, but I won’t buy vegetables from Fukushima and that area,” said shopper Yukihiro Sato, 75.

From corner stores to Tokyo’s vast Tsukiji fish market, Japanese shoppers picked groceries with care Sunday after the discovery of contamination in spinach and milk fanned fears about the safety of this crowded country’s food supply. Trace amounts of radioactive iodine also were found in tap water in Tokyo and elsewhere in Japan.

The anxiety added to the spreading impact of the unfolding nuclear crisis triggered when the March 11 tsunami battered the Fukushima complex, wrecking its cooling system and leading to the release of radioactive material.

On Sunday, the government banned shipments of milk from one area and spinach from another and said it found contamination on two more vegetables ― canola and chrysanthemum greens ― and in three more prefectures. The Health Ministry also advised a village in Fukushima prefecture not to drink tap water because of radioactive iodine in its supply. It stressed, however, that the amounts remained minuscule and posed no health threat.

There were no signs Sunday of the panic buying that stripped Tokyo supermarkets of food last week. Instead, shoppers scrutinized the source of items and tried to avoid what they worried might be tainted.

Mayumi Mizutani was shopping for bottled water, saying she was worried about the health of her visiting 2-year-old grandchild after a tiny amount of radioactive iodine was found in Tokyo’s tap water.

She expressed fears that the toddler could possibly get cancer.

“That’s why I’m going to use this water as much as possible,” she said.

The government said the level of radiation detected on spinach and milk was minuscule and should be no threat to health. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said he had received no reports that would require special measures to be taken regarding tap water.

Tainted milk was found 30 kilometers from the plant on Saturday, a local official said. Spinach was collected from six farms between 100 kilometers and 120 kilometers to the south of the reactors.

On Sunday, authorities found contamination at additional farms in Fukushima and on vegetables in Chiba, Gunma and Tochigi prefectures, said Yoshifumi Kaji, director of the health ministry’s inspection and safety division. He said it was possible some tainted foods already have been sold.

The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed radiation in some Japanese milk and vegetables was “significantly higher” than levels Japan allows for consumption.

Authorities expect to decide by Tuesday on a comprehensive plan to limit food shipments from affected areas, Kaji said at a news conference.

Farmers and merchants expressed fears of their own that public anxiety might hurt even producers of goods that were free of contamination.

“There will probably be damaging rumors,” said farmer Shizuko Kohata, 60, who was evacuated from the town of Futaba, near the Fukushima complex, to a sports arena in Saitama, north of Tokyo.

“I grow things and I’m worried about whether I can make it in the future,” Kohata said Saturday.

Chiyoko Kaizuka, who with family members farms spinach, broccoli, onions, rice and other crops on 20 hectares (49 acres) in Ibaraki prefecture northeast of Tokyo, said the combination of earthquakes and fears of radiation have her on edge.

“I don’t know what effect the radiation will have, but it’s impossible to farm,” the 83-year-old Kaizuka said Sunday as she stood along a row of fresh, unpicked spinach that was ready to go but now can’t be shipped.

On Sunday, an official of Taiwan’s Atomic Energy Council said radiation was detected on fava beans imported from Japan, although in an amount that was too low to harm human health. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to deal with the press.

Japan’s food exports are worth about $3.3 billion a year ― less than 0.5 percent of its total exports ― and seafood makes up 45 percent of that, according to government data.

Experts at the World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization were working Sunday to gather more facts to assess the situation, but an FAO spokesman in Rome said that the picture was not yet clear enough for them to release any specific recommendations.

However, the agencies praised the Japanese government for taking steps to test foods and monitor exports for radiation contamination.

In Tokyo, others said they weren’t concerned and put the crisis in perspective with other calamities.

“I experienced the war, so if there is enough food for a day or two, I feel we can get by,” said Nagako Mizuno, 73, originally from Iwaki, a city in the quake zone, but has lived in Tokyo for 40 years.