All vegetables, fruits in Fukushima Pref. measure within safe levels of cesium in FY 2013 monitoring

11 May 2014

All vegetables and fruits tested for radioactive cesium by the Fukushima prefectural government in fiscal 2013 showed measurements below the current maximum allowable limit of 100 becquerels per kilogram under the Food Sanitation Act. It is the first such result since the prefectural government began testing agricultural and marine products for radioactive cesium in fiscal 2011 following the nuclear accident at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. In all food categories, the proportion of items surpassing the maximum allowable limit decreased considerably.

-Downward trend

In three years of testing, all 5,806 samples of vegetables and fruits that were screened measured below the legal maximum allowable limit for the first time. The "others" category, which includes food such as nuts, also had no samples surpassing the limit during the year ended March 31. All samples in the categories of unprocessed milk, meat and eggs tested below the limit for the second year in a row.

Within the overall samples of agricultural and marine products tested, 3.4% exceeded the limit in fiscal 2011. The percentage has since been decreasing, standing at 1.8% in fiscal 2012 and 1.4% in fiscal 2013.

-Differing responses

In late March, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry reviewed its guidelines for items subject to testing in 17 prefectures, mostly in northeastern and eastern Japan including Fukushima, and reduced the number of items covered from 98 to 65. Regarding its reason for narrowing the scope of testing, a ministry official said, "We are seeing a lot of food in which radioactive cesium is not detected. We determined that a review was necessary to facilitate effective testing."

On the other hand, the prefectural government has been monitoring 461 items, having added its own items to those in the ministry's guidelines. It will maintain the number of test items in fiscal 2014 as well. An official of the prefectural government's section for environment-conserving agriculture stressed the "need to maintain the scope of our items from the standpoint of ensuring safety and dispelling unfounded rumors" stemming from the nuclear accident. The prefectural government intends to carry out tests on a similar number of items for the time being.

-Dependence on health fund

The prefectural government purchases samples from producers to conduct the tests for measuring radioactive substances. The costs necessary for the testing, including sample purchases, amount to about 150 million yen each year, and the local government uses money withdrawn from its fund for residents' health management for the food monitoring.

When the prefectural government began conducting the testing in June 2011, the money in the fund that could be used for the screening process totaled about 2 billion yen. As of May 2014, it stands at about 600 million yen. As the money is also used for projects other than the food testing, it is expected to be depleted in several years.

The prefectural government plans to ask the national government to secure public funding in a stable manner so it can maintain the number of items subject to testing. But it is unclear how much support the prefectural government can gain from the health ministry, which is moving toward decreasing the number of items subject to screening.

- Gaps with producers

Producers of food items have expressed dissatisfaction over the ministry's guidelines. "The central government's perception is very different from that in the field. The effects of unfounded rumors are still strongly rooted," said an official of a crisis management center at the Shin Fukushima chapter of the Japan Agricultural Cooperatives (JA) group. "It is inconceivable to say we have a choice of not conducting the testing just because radioactive substances have not been detected."

At the crippled nuclear power plant, problems such as how to deal with radioactivity-contaminated water still remain unresolved even after three years have passed since the accident. Work to decommission the reactors there is said to take 30 to 40 years to complete. "Sometimes I wonder just how long we have to continue (conducting the monitoring)," said an official of the JA Fukushima Central Union's agriculture promotion section. "We need to carry out the testing at least until the stage in which trouble at the nuclear plant, including the contaminated water issue, does not occur at all."

(Translated by Kyodo News)