Irradiated Baby Food Spotlights Ongoing Woes for Japan’s Food Sector

  • Share
  • Read Later

Workers decontaminate around an elementary school in the Katsurao town near the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture, in this photo taken by Kyodo on December 4, 2011. The tsunami that struck Fukushima nuclear plant in March was far larger than what the facility was equipped to handle, the operator of the plant said on Friday in its first official assessment of the worst nuclear disaster in 25 years.

On Tuesday, Japanese food producer Meiji announced the recall of 400,000 cans of infant formula after traces of radioactive cesium were found in the company’s milk powder. Tests of the “Meiji Step” batch of formula with an October 2012 expiration date detected cesium-134 and cesium-137 at levels of 15.2 becquerels per kilogram and 16.5 bq/kg, respectively. The company was quick to point out that those numbers are well below the Japanese government’s permissible levels of dairy for infants, which is 200 bq/kg. But that’s unlikely to mean much to parents of nine-month-olds. Growing children are particularly sensitive to the effects of radiation, and have been a focus of health concerns since March 11’s triptych of disasters sent radioactive plumes across Japan’s airspace.

The news underscores the continuing problems that Japan’s food sector faces nine months after the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. For years, Japanese food exports have been lauded for their safety and quality in Asia and beyond; after thousands of children were sickened by melamine-tainted formula in China in 2008, trusted Japanese brands of milk powder flew off Asia’s shelves. But since March, traces of radioactive materials have been found in several Japanese products grown or processed in the vicinity of the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant, from fish and beef to rice,vegetables and tea. Several countries placed bans last spring on Japanese food products, including Hong Kong, the sector’s biggest customer. Though most have since been lifted, the taint – both real and imagined – of food produced near Fukushima remains. And while it does, large swaths of rice paddies and vegetables fields surrounding the plant are likely to stay deserted.

The government has been working hard to reverse that fate. This weekend, the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, a government body, started experimental decontamination in a town inside the 20-kilometer (12 mile) mandatory evacuation zone still in place around the plant. Large-scale decontamination efforts inside the area are scheduled to begin in January, a project of unprecedented scale that the New York Times notes will include replacing most of the topsoil in an area roughly the size of Connecticut. It’s too early to say whether or not the tens of thousands of people who have been evacuated will return to their homes – let alone their fields – when the effort is complete. Early studies indicate that radiation exposure was not as bad as originally thought, but parents are unlikely to rush back to towns where their kids might be at risk.

The impact on Meiji, Japan’s largest producer of infant formula, will probably linger too. The recalled formula was produced in April in Saitama prefecture, north of Tokyo, and the company says the milk was exposed to radiation during processing in mid March. Though experts agree that the cesium levels found in the product probably does not pose a health risk, it’s a gamble few informed consumers would be willing to take. The announcement on Tuesday led to a flurry of concern throughout Asia, with some Hong Kong stores pulling the Meiji products off shelves.

Krista Mahr is a correspondent at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @kristamahr. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME