Citizens and activist groups yesterday raised doubts over the maximum limits set by the Ministry of Health and Welfare for the levels of radioactive contamination permitted in imported foodstuffs, including from post-Fukushima nuclear disaster Japan, and urged tighter regulations.
In a roundtable discussion on radiation and food safety organized by the National Association for Radiation Protection in Taipei, Tokyo-based Taiwanese writer and anti-nuclear advocate Liu Li-erh (劉黎兒), and officials from the Food and Drug Administration and the Atomic Energy Council, exchanged views on the current food-radiation safety limits and other relevant regulations.
Liu said that Taiwan’s permissible limit for total cesium radionuclides (cesium-134 and cesium-137, which are radioactive isotopes associated with increased cancer risks) in food products, which stands at 370 becquerels per kilogram (Bq/kg), is an outdated standard that was set in response to the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.
At the time the calculation was based on a person being exposed to 5 millisieverts (mSv) of radiation per year.
“The 2007 recommendation of the International Commission on Radiological Protection [ICRP] stated that the dose limit of public exposure is 1mSv per year,” Liu added, urging the authority to raise the threshold to 100Bq/kg, which is also the limit set in Japan.
Liu was especially critical of the ministry’s attempt to ease the standard for total cesium radionuclides in food to 600Bq/kg in June 2012, which she called “a surreptitious and inconceivable move made when the legislature was in recess,” and when Japan had just tightened the limit from 500Bq/kg, set right after the Fukushima catastrophe, to 100Bq/kg.
Food and Drug Administration’s Northern Center for Regional Administration Director Feng Jun-lan (馮潤蘭) dismissed the allegation, saying that it was not a stealthy move, but one announced in accordance with due bureaucratic process.
“The [proposed] change was not limited to relaxing [the standard]. The announcement also included standards that were made stricter and the addition that radionuclides should be tested,” Feng said, adding that Taiwan’s limits are actually lower than in many other countries and the change was made to be “in line with international standards.”
However, the proposed amendment was met with strong opposition and skepticism after an insider bureaucrat drew the public’s attention to the matter, and has since been in limbo.
Feng emphasized that although the nation’s radiation limit is set at 370Bq/kg for foodstuffs, in practice imports from Japan are not allowed to exceed 100Bq/kg due to Japan’s domestic restrictions.
“More than 40,000 food products from Japan had been inspected from 2012 to the end of 2013. A total of 192 items had tested positive for Iodine-131 or cesium-134 and cesium-137, but the doses were all within permitted levels,” she added.
Liu and the representatives of groups in the audience urged the government to make public the names of the companies that imported the radiation-positive foodstuffs, but Feng said there are no existing regulations allowing the government to release information about the food companies involved.
The groups said the government was “passive in protecting its people,” pointing out that while Hong Kong has a limit of 1,000Bq/kg for total cesium radionuclides in food, it nevertheless gives information about the radiation-contaminated food products regardless of the doses, thereby pressuring the food companies involved to pull the products off shelves on their own initiative in order to preserve their reputations.