On Tuesday, in line with legislative regulations and as requested by legislators, the Taiwan Food and Drug Administration (TFDA) of the Ministry of Health and Welfare ordered that a recent shipment of green tea powder from Japan’s Ibaraki Prefecture be returned or destroyed. The radioactive isotope detected in the sample of the green tea powder, however, was lower than legal levels.
According to regulations, the maximum permitted levels for cesium-134 and cesium-137 combined in food products should be lower than 370 becquerels per kilogram (Bq/kg). From 2011 to this year, 220,497 shipments of food imported from Japan were inspected. Radioactive isotopes were detected in 252 samples, but the levels were still lower than standards in Taiwan. This time, only a level of 3Bq/kg was detected in the shipment from Ibaraki.
The TFDA order is unreasonable. International standards that have been in place for years are more than enough to safeguard public health. Usually, a 50-fold safety factor of WHO standards is sufficient. In 2014, the US Food and Drug Administration said there was no evidence that food products from Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture would be harmful to human beings. In 2015, the US National Academy of Sciences also supported this argument. Papers published in the leading science journal Nature also said that the radioactive levels of food products from Fukushima have returned to levels prior to the nuclear disaster in 2011.
After the Fukushima disaster, the Japanese government set a maximum level of radioactivity in food at 500 Bq/kg for adults. Moreover, even if a person consumes food with a level of radioactivity at 500 Bq/kg every day, the risk of being affected by radiation is lower than undergoing a CT scan. In 2012, Japan set an even stricter level of 100 Bq/kg. As a result of this new regulation, many food products were destroyed and living expenses soared. That was another social disaster.
Bernard Cohen, elected as a member to the US National Academy of Engineering in 2003 for his contributions to the understanding of low-level radiation, said that the harm from 1 millisievert of annual radiation exposure to the human body is similar to the harm caused by 20 grams of alcohol or 40 cups of coffee. In Colorado, the average radiation dose from exposure to natural and artificial background radiation is twice the national average, but the state’s overall rate of cancer is lower than that of the US average.
Due to cosmic rays and natural materials, we are all exposed to radiation daily. The principle of toxicology is that it is the levels which are the key to determining whether a particular substance is toxic or not. According to nuclear physicist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1977, Rosalyn Yalow, some forms of radiation in our lives could be disregarded. We need to be sensible about this.
Instead, we should pay more attention to ways of preserving food and expiration dates. We should also be more careful about heavy metal contamination in seafood, rather than low-level radiation. We should be as mindful of our capacity for understanding as was French philosopher Rene Descartes, who said: “I am indeed amazed when I consider how weak my mind is and how prone to error.” We should be rational and not waste food irrationally and unnecessarily, and I wish Fukushima the best of luck in being self-reliant once more.
Lin Ji-shing is a university professor.
Translated by Emma Liu
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