Lax standards endanger Taiwanese

By Jay Fang 方儉  / 

Sun, Oct 14, 2012 - Page 8

During weekends between last month and this month six marquees have been set up outside the Eslite Store on Zhongcheng Road in Taipei City’s Tianmu (天母), which are full of agricultural goods from northeast Japan. There were all kinds of produce, from fresh vegetables to pickles.

“Come and get your imported Japanese veg, NT$100 for three bags ... please support the farmers in northeast Japan, help them get over the disaster,” called out a student, who was earning a little extra cash for his studies.

The event organizer was drumming up a fair bit of business and was selling goods produced by farmers who are trying to pick themselves up after the crippling earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on March 11 last year. Unfortunately, there seemed to be more students selling the goods than there were people watching, and there were far more people watching than there were actually buying.

One customer asked: “Aren’t these from Iwate Prefecture? Wasn’t Iwate affected by radiation from the Fukushima nuclear disaster?”

The reply was to the effect that all the produce on sale had been tested in Japan and was only exported after satisfying the country’s safety standards — and that Taiwan’s government had also tested them, so there was no need to worry. Another answer to a similar question went something like: “All of the products are grown hydroponically in greenhouses, so there is no risk of contamination.”

The sellers were constantly having to reassure the customers in that way and it did not always work.

“So they’re cultivated in water, but it’s still local water, and even the water in Tokyo is contaminated, most people there are having to drink mineral water, so who knows what the water is like further up to the northeast,” people said.

Ever since the March 11 disaster the world has regained its fear of radiation. It started with people in China panic-buying iodized salt, which they believed would protect them from radiation drifting over from Japan, followed by people everywhere testing the air quality — as well as Japanese exports — for signs of radiation. Finally, some fish caught off the west coast of the US tested positive for radioactive particles, which were generated by the stricken Fukushima nuclear reactor, suggesting that the entire Pacific ocean had been affected. From this point on, countries around the world either prohibited or placed restrictions upon the import of Japanese products.

All countries, that is, except Taiwan, where Japanese products are still being accepted. Since the March 11 disaster, the government has been more active in spreading propaganda about radiation than the Japanese government itself. The myths include telling the public that nuclear power plants are perfectly safe and that low levels of radiation actually help to cure certain diseases. It is all rubbish spread by retired members of the Atomic Energy Council (AEC) with no evidence to back it up.

The governments of Taiwan and Japan have got together to reduce the barriers which limit the importation of contaminated Japanese food products. The Department of Health (DOH) has announced that it is performing tests on Japanese imports “by the batch.”

According to data the DOH provided to Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Legislator Tien Chiu-chin (田秋堇), 28,410 items — listed over 649 pages — passed the tests, with the vast majority testing zero for radioactivity and all items falling within the safety standards. Only 100 or so items tested positive for between one to dozens of becquerels per kilogram (Bq/kg) of the radioactive isotopes cesium-137 or cesium-134, and less than 10 were found to have radioactive iodine, tellurium or potassium isotopes.

Tokyo-based Taiwanese writer Lill Liu (劉黎兒) has shown many times that there is a case to be made that Taiwan has some of the most lax radiation controls on imported food products globally. The majority of countries and areas, including the EU, South Korea and Singapore, have set the tolerance level for radiation at under 100Bq/kg. Taiwan stands alone in the world in how it tests for radiation from Japan. Does the public here believe the government when it announces that there has been no contamination from Fukushima?

Taiwan wants to allow the tolerance level for food products to be extended to 300 or even 370Bq/kg when the international standard states that anything over 100Bq/kg is considered nuclear waste. That is, the government wants it to be lawful for Taiwanese to consume large amounts of agricultural and fishery products cultivated near the nuclear waste storage facility on Lanyu (蘭嶼).

The radioactivity in nuclear weapons and in nuclear power plants decays very slowly, with a half-life measured in tens of millions of years. It takes a very long time indeed for these compounds to lose their toxicity and the ability to harm living things. The radioactive material from Fukushima will need around 10,000 years before it becomes harmless.

The Taiwanese government has welcomed contaminated Japanese food products with open arms and abandoned its duty of care to its citizens.

Jay Fang is the chairman of the Green Consumers’ Foundation.

Translated by Paul Cooper