Japan: government fumbling led to distribution of radioactive cattle feed

Japan slow to close door on nuclear food

TOKYO – Somehow, when much of the world was worried about nuclear fallout from Japan, it never occurred to thousands of farmers and government officials that radioactive particles spewing into eastern Japan since March might end up in the food chain via rice straw left outside to dry. 

Either that, or after the meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant farmers and officials knowingly ignored public safety concerns to profit from the sale of straw, cows and other perishable food items before they would have to be thrown out, slaughtered or burned. 

That straw, eaten by at least 2,900 cows that were possibly consumed by thousands of humans, is causing perhaps the

biggest food scare ever in Japan, a country that prides itself on its healthy, homegrown diet. Yet so far, more than four months after cesium, iodine, and other radioactive subatomic particles began showing up in food across Japan, not a single farmer, trucker, wholesaler, retailer or government official has been charged – or even investigated – for potential criminal negligence.  Japanese media, while exposing the food scandal, have yet to determine how many thousands of people in Japan may have eaten food laced with cancer-causing toxins such as cesium. 

The Ministry of Agriculture said on Tuesday that at least 116 farms in 16 prefectures, from Hokkaido in the far north to Shimane in western Japan, used contaminated rice straw as feed. At least 2,906 cows ate this straw before being shipped around Japan, the ministry said. Only 274 samples have been tested, about a tenth of the total, and 23 of them contained cesium surpassing government safety standards. "Beef containing cesium has already entered into the market," Hideo Harada, the director for livestock policy planning at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, told reporters in Tokyo. "We have to prevent it from reaching consumers by checking meat and recalling tainted products from the market." 

Many taxpayers are outraged that the government let the cesium enter the food chain, and is now planning to use taxpayers' money to compensate the farmers and others in the meat industry about 2 billion yen (US$25 million) to purchase, store or incinerate the meat. 
"Why after all this intentional damage, outright negligence and incompetence are the people of Japan silent?" wrote "Tkoind2", one of many critics on a chat site of Japan Today, a Tokyo-based news site. "In any other nation there would have been crowds storming the offices of the government and demanding the replacement of the leadership. But in Japan … near deafening silence. Japan has largely shattered the last illusions I held in hope for her future." 

Said another chat-site commentator, "smithinjapan": "The world cannot trust the word of a government who constantly lies or claims not to know what's happening ("not our fault!") and ships stuff contaminated with radiation without any kind of testing." Agriculture Minister Michihiko Kano admitted this month that officials didn't realize that farmers might send contaminated straw to ranchers. The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest daily by circulation, quoted an unnamed Agriculture Ministry official as saying: "This is nothing less than a colossal blunder by our ministry. It was beyond our expectations that straw would become a source of radioactive contamination." 

Most observers agree that the government should have quarantined all food items in Fukushima, Miyagi and other nearby prefectures immediately after explosions began at reactors on March 12. Then, they should have only permitted the sale and distribution of items perhaps months after comprehensive testing for radioactive particles was completed.  Instead, the government is, in effect, closing the barn door after the horses have run away. The Health Ministry declared a ban on the distribution of beef from Fukushima prefecture on July 19, when it should have been applied immediately after the March 11 earthquake that triggered the meltdown and the tsunami that ravaged the northeast coast of Japan. The ministry also bannedshiitake mushrooms from Fukushima on July 23, more than four months after people have been eating them. 

These items have been added to a menu of unsafe products in Japan including samples of milk, tea, seafood, spinach, bamboo shoots and many other vegetables. Many consumers wonder what, if anything, is safe to eat in Japan. Aeon said more than 4,000 kilograms of contaminated beef was put on sale at 174 of its supermarkets nationwide, while Tokyu said it sold tainted beef at 63 of its stores. Since supermarkets only began testing meat earlier this month, it's difficult to know how much tainted beef has been consumed since March 11. 

No officials have publicly announced estimates of how many consumers ate the meat. But a quick calculation indicates that if 10,000 kilograms of meat was contaminated, and people ate 200 grams each on average, that means 50,000 people ate beef tainted with cesium. Moreover, 200,000 kilos could potentially affect a million people. Since the Agriculture Ministry was so lax about rice straw, it's possible that other food items are tainted as well: chicken, pork, rice, vegetables – basically anything that was outdoors after the explosions in March. 

As Tokyo Electric Power Company poured radioactive water into the ocean in the weeks after explosions at Fukushima nuclear reactors, many Japanese shunned potentially harmful seafood in favor of beef, and government officials even made public shows of eating beef from Fukushima prefecture, to show it was "safe". As a result, many foreign nations removed restrictions on food products from Japan. 

But the recent food crisis began when the central government gave written instructions on March 19 for local officials to tell farmers not to feed grass stored outside after the nuclear eruptions to cattle, but they made no mention of rice straw, which some farmers feed cattle in order to increase the marbled fat favored by diners in Japan. One farmer near Minami-soma city, who didn't bother to cover his straw or move it indoors, fed it to cattle because he had nothing else to give them, according to the Fukushima prefectural government. 

For nearly four months, the cesium in the straw and cattle wasn't detected until a slaughterhouse in the Shibaura port area of Tokyo discovered it on July 8 in some of the 11 cows it received from the farm, according to the Asahi newspaper. That meat wasn't distributed. But the slaughterhouse realized that it had already taken another 6 cows from the same farm in May and June, and had shipped them to retailers and consumers, without knowing about their contamination. 

By the time government officials got around to testing the items, they found cesium levels 25 times the acceptable limit in straw in the farmer's rice field, and 5 times legal levels in beef tracked to a Tokyo market and then distributed around Japan. Using codes on packages, officials tracked the beef to the suburbs of Sagamihara and Fujisawa west of Tokyo, as well as Kochi province in the Shikoku region of western Japan, and the northern province of Akita. 

Agrarian Fukushima supplies only about 3% of Japan's meat, but much larger shares of rice and vegetables. Shipments of liver and intestines, which are popular items across Asia, do not legally require the same tracking details as meat, and little is known about the possible contamination of these items. One butcher, quoted in Yomiuri, summed up what many feel in Japan. "If grass is contaminated with radioactive substances, so is straw. Is that so difficult to figure out? Until the government takes more effective action against this problem, I'll be scared to sell beef at my shop." 

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