Although clear signs of recovery are emerging for agricultural and marine products from Fukushima Prefecture, consumer fears founded on harmful rumors about radiation are proving difficult to banish.
The local fishing and farming industries were brought to their knees by the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March 2011. Now, four years on, the number of fish species being caught off the Fukushima coast on a trial basis has steadily increased, and every bag of rice grown in the prefecture in 2014 was checked and has cleared the national standard for radioactive substances. These and other products have been proven safe. Despite this, many retailers and consumers remain reluctant to buy them.
On March 6, ships unloaded a constant stream of boxes of Pacific cod at the Matsukawaura fishing port in Soma, Fukushima Prefecture. Pacific cod is a winter delicacy, and the harvest impressed the fishermen.
At the end of January, Pacific cod was added to the list of species of marine life permitted to be caught in these waters on a trial basis. While the cod was being packed into boxes at this port north of the 20-kilometer no-entry zone around the nuclear plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co., the Soma-Futaba Fisheries Cooperative Association checked the fish for radioactive cesium in a nearby shed. All 16 species of fish examined on this day recorded results of “no radiation detected.”
Fishing on a trial basis began in June 2012. Currently, fishermen are able to work in waters off Fukushima Prefecture, except for the area within a 20-kilometer radius around the nuclear plant, and some other areas. Species of fish that have continually recorded radioactive cesium levels well below the government-set threshold of 100 becquerels per kilogram in ongoing monitoring surveys conducted by the prefecture are eligible to be caught on a trial basis.
All other fishing remains prohibited. Initially, three species were declared safe to be caught, and this has since expanded to 58.
In June 2011, three months after the nuclear accident, 50 percent of specimens caught were found to have cesium levels above the safe level. All specimens caught in February this year were within safe levels.
However, the volume of fish from coastal fishing unloaded at ports along the prefecture’s coast in February was about 60 tons, barely 5 percent of that posted in February 2011.
The Tsukiji market in Tokyo was the biggest destination for many products from the prefecture before the nuclear accident. But these days, many brokers at the market steer clear of any goods bearing a Fukushima label.
“Even if a product is of good quality, many consumers will avoid it when they hear it comes from Fukushima,” one broker said.
At the end of February, it was discovered that contaminated rainwater at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant had been leaking into the ocean around the crippled plant.
“We’d been conducting strict checks and confirming that our products were safe, and then this happened,” said a visibly annoyed Hiroyuki Sato, 59, chief of the Soma-Futaba Fisheries Cooperative Association. “Now consumers might become reluctant to buy from us again.”
Rice checks to continue
The Consumer Affairs Agency regularly surveys about 5,000 people in the Tokyo metropolitan area and other locations about this issue. According to a survey conducted in February, 17.4 percent of respondents said they hesitate to purchase food products from Fukushima, a figure down only slightly from the 19.4 percent recorded in the survey conducted in February 2013. These findings underline the fact that consumers’ radiation fears will not be easily changed.
The impact is also evident in the price of agricultural and livestock products. At the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, the retail price for peaches grown in Fukushima Prefecture — the nation’s No. 2 producer of the fruit, according to volume — was ¥358 per kilogram last year, more than 20 percent cheaper than the average price for domestic peaches.
The price for beef from the prefecture was ¥1,685 per kilogram, about ¥300 cheaper than the national average. The value of agricultural products shipped from the prefecture was ¥204.9 billion in 2013, which was still below the ¥233 billion level reached before the nuclear accident.
The prefectural government has conducted exhaustive screenings for radioactive substances since March 2011. Over this period, samples have been taken from about 130,000 food products and tested. In 2012, contamination checks began on every bag of newly harvested rice in the prefecture.
Seventy-one bags were found to have exceeded the government-set safety standards that year. However, countermeasures such as sprinkling potassium in paddies, which prevents rice from absorbing cesium, have proven highly effective. As a result, all of the about 11 million bags of rice produced in the prefecture in 2014 had radiation levels below the government-set standard. This news was warmly welcomed by the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, with one official saying, “The safety of all rice harvested in Fukushima Prefecture is guaranteed.”
The prefecture plans to continue testing every bag of rice harvested in 2015. Screening every bag over the past three years has cost about ¥20 billion, but people involved in the industry point out that the price of koshihikari rice grown in the Hamadori region of eastern Fukushima Prefecture in 2014 was more than 20 percent lower than the national average for this brand.
“Wholesalers in other prefectures very much want the checks on every rice bag to continue,” one industry insider said. “At a time when there is a nationwide surplus of rice, we must ensure that rice grown in Fukushima Prefecture is completely safe so that more shops are willing to sell it.”
According to the agriculture ministry, at least 12 nations and territories had suspended imports of marine products, milk, feedstuff and other produce from Fukushima and other prefectures as of March 3