Concerns linger over food safety in Japan

 
A 2011 file photo showing a sign put up at the Four Seasons Gourmet Market in Singapore's Marina Bay Financial Centre stating that its produce is from Fukuoka prefecture in south Japan and is approved by the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) .  -- ST FILE PHOTO:  LIM SIN THAI

It’s been more than three years after the Fukushima disaster, but friends and acquaintances heading to Japan are still asking me if the food and water in Tokyo are safe to eat and drink.

Fellow Singaporeans working in Tokyo say they are getting similar queries from their friends and acquaintances.

Some Japanese officials I met have expressed surprise at such worries, and one of them, with some knowledge of Singlish, had asked me, I suspect only half in jest, if Singaporeans weren’t being kiasi (literally fear of dying, but meaning risk-averse) over contamination fears.

But with news coming out almost every other day over the mishandling of the cleanup and decommissioning of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, the issue of food safety is still of concern to the Japanese themselves. It should be no surprise that those who come to the country from overseas share such concerns.

A survey by the Fukushima prefectural government of residents completed in December 2013 showed that 66.5 per cent of the respondents still had worries about food safety and wanted to know more about how food was being monitored for radiation.

The official Consumer Affairs Agency found similar results in a poll released in March on consumer attitudes towards food and radiation. A majority of 65.7 per cent of respondents surveyed in eight major prefectures, including Tokyo, said they were concerned about the source of their food.

There has been a downtrend among those who refrain altogether from buying food produced in Fukushima, although they still stand at a respectable 15 per cent.

One or two Singaporeans have been known to bring along their own bottles of mineral water when visiting Tokyo, but while I have laughed with friends when sharing stories of the extremes people go to to feel safer, at some level, I understand where the worries are coming from.

Radiation is not a subject which ordinary people are familiar with on a day-to-day basis, apart from simplistic Hollywood references to it that unfortunately, invariably involves deaths of those affected, and when major nuclear accidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima hit.

When experts say that the maximum permitted level of radioactivity in fish has been set at 100 becquerels per kg of wet weight, people have to grapple with an unfamiliar measurement. The question on most people’s minds is obviously what would happen if they were to eat such fish for a prolonged period of time. According to scientists, the health risks are miniscule.

But what if the scientists are wrong? Experts at a recent conference on nuclear energy in Tokyo agree that communicating about safety issues in the nuclear industry to the people is a tough job, and a hard sell.

“Only the experts have the knowledge to tell whether some place is safe or not... People have to trust in the way the industry is recording the (radiation) readings,” said Ms Agneta Rising, head of the World Nuclear Association, an organisation that promotes the safe use of nuclear energy.

Trust is something that is in short supply at the moment as hardly a week goes by without energy operator Tepco revealing yet another issue that could have been better handled, or updating information previously communicated to the public that has proven to be inaccurate.

For instance, on April 14, Tepco revealed that 200 tons of contaminated water were wrongly pumped into the basements of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant.

On April 1, the government lifted an evacuation order on the district of Tamura in Fukushima, the first in the 20km-radius exclusion zone set up around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant after the meltdowns in March 2011 after finishing decontamination work last June.

However, to date, less than a third of the 357 residents registered in February have returned, presumably due to radiation concerns.

And in Singapore, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) still has a ban in place on food from Fukushima prefecture.

I must confess that when I first arrived in Tokyo to take up my posting in September last year, I kept a very close eye on the origins of the food that I ate, and avoided food from Fukushima prefecture like the plague.

But that did not last more than a few weeks, when I made up my mind, after reading up about the issue and talking to Japanese officials and residents, that the food that gets to the market is safe.

These days, I tell friends and acquaintances that I eat and drink freely in Tokyo, and when they get here, we often end up eating and drinking freely at a Tokyo cafe or restaurant.

But I do not see anything wrong if they decide to bring along their own Singapore-bought mineral water to go with the meal.

boonlai@sph.com.sg

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