Japan grapples with providing food from Fukushima at Tokyo Olympics

AFP, FUKUSHIMA, Japan

Thu, Nov 21, 2019 - Page 16

For years, Japan’s government has sought to convince consumers that food from Fukushima Prefecture is safe, despite the 2011 nuclear disaster, but will it serve the region’s produce at next year’s Tokyo Olympics?

It is a thorny subject for authorities. They pitched the Games in part as a chance to showcase the recovery of areas affected by the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster.

Government officials have touted strict checks on food from the region as evidence that the produce is completely safe, but it remains unclear whether athletes and sports teams from around the world will be convinced.

In Fukushima, producers keen to see their products served at the Olympic Village have submitted a bid to the organizers.

“The Fukushima region has put forward food from 187 producers and is second only to Hokkaido when it comes to meeting the specified criteria in terms of range of products,” said Shigeyuki Honma, assistant director-general of the prefecture’s agriculture and forestry planning division.

“Fukushima wants to serve athletes its rice, its fruits, beef and vegetables, but the committee still has to decide,” Honma said.

In the years since the nuclear disaster, when tsunami waves overwhelmed the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, strict measures have been in place to screen all manner of local products.

Officials have said that the figures speak for themselves.

Japan allows a maximum of 100 becquerels of cesium radioactivity per kilogram (Bq/kg).

By comparison, the EU sets its maximum level at 1,250Bq/kg and the US at 1,200Bq/kg.

From April last year to March, 9.21 million bags of rice were examined, with not a single one exceeding the Japanese limit.

The same went for 2,455 samples of fruits and vegetables, 4,336 pieces of meat and 6,187 ocean fish.

“Only river fish and wild mushrooms have on just six occasions been found to exceed the limits,” said Kenji Kusano, director of the Fukushima Agricultural Technology Center in Koriyama, the government’s main screening site.

However, the figures have only gone some way to reassuring foreign officials: Numerous countries, including Taiwan, China, South Korea and the US, maintain restrictions on the import of some or all produce from Fukushima.

South Korea, which is locked in a dispute with Japan over wartime issues, has been vocal about its concerns ahead of the Olympics, even raising the possibility of bringing in its own kitchen and food.

“We have requested the Olympic organizers to provide objective data verified by an independent third body,” the South’s Korean Sport and Olympic Committee said in a statement earlier this year.

“Since Japan repeatedly said its food from Fukushima is safe, we have demanded they provide statistics and data to back up their claims,” a committee official told reporters.

The position underlines a long-running problem for Japan: While it points to its extensive, government-mandated checks as proof of safety, many abroad feel the government is not an objective arbiter.

“Generally, Japanese citizens have faith in the government and we haven’t felt the need to have checks carried out by independent parties,” Kusano said.

However, lingering questions have left some officials feeling that “perhaps [third-party checks] may be important from the point of view of foreigners,” he added.

The International Olympic Committee said that it was still weighing how to handle the matter.

“Food menus and catering companies for the Olympic Village are under discussion and have yet to be defined,” a spokesman told reporters.

Tokyo Games organizers said that promoting areas affected by the 2011 disaster remains a key goal.

“Supporting the area’s reconstruction efforts through the sourcing of its food and beverage products is one of our basic strategies; we are therefore seriously considering doing this,” Tokyo Games spokesman Masa Takaya told reporters.

Rules on what food and drink could be brought in independently by teams were still being reviewed, he said.

Pointing to the strict standards of Japanese checks, he said that the organizers “are confident the food we will serve to athletes will be completely safe.”

In Fukushima, producers can only wait and hope for the best.

Tomio Kusano, a pear farmer in Iwaki, struggled enormously after the disaster.

“My world really collapsed, but I never thought for a second of quitting,” he said, adding that his perseverance is finally paying off.

“I don’t get subsidies any more. My pears are inspected and there are no problems. They are selling well again in Japan and Vietnam has started to import them,” Kusano said.