Radiation-Tainted Beef Hits Market in Japan
By PHRED DVORAK
JULY 13, 2011
TOKYO—Japan grappled with a fresh radiation scare
Tuesday, as authorities found that beef contaminated with
radioactive cesium had been shipped to shops and restaurants
throughout the country.
The beef, from six cattle raised on a farm near the
stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, registered
radioactive-cesium levels up to seven times that permitted
by Japanese food-safety standards. Some of the meat had
already likely been eaten, government officials said.
Experts said the level was too low to create health
problems in people who ate just one or two servings. But the
discovery dominated local news and TV shows, reminding
Japanese consumers that they will be living with the threat
of radiation for a long time to come—and highlighting holes
in the way Japan is testing cattle for radioactive exposure.
The beef scare, coming after reports of radiation
contamination in food had largely died down, reignited
worries that the damaged Fukushima reactors could be
poisoning staples from water to produce to fish. A month ago
Japanese testers found higher-than-permitted levels of
radioactive material in tea leaves that grew more than 200
miles from the nuclear plant—a sign contamination had spread
farther than previously thought.
That contaminated beef had gotten into the food supply
shocked the public. The scramble to locate the meat started
Saturday, when the Tokyo government said it had found
elevated radioactive-cesium levels in meat from other cattle
raised on the same farm in Minamisoma, around 18 miles north
of the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The six cattle—which had all
passed external radiation tests—had been shipped earlier to
Tokyo butchers, who had gone on to sell the meat to
wholesalers and retail shops in eight prefectures, or
states, and metropolitan areas.
Some of the meat is still unaccounted for, but some
appears already to have been bought by consumers, said a
spokeswoman from the Tokyo metropolitan government's
food-monitoring division. The impact on beef sales is so far
Radioactive cesium emits gamma rays, which can damage
cellular DNA and raise the risk of cancer. The levels found
in the beef, though, would become a health concern only if a
person ate large quantities every day for a year, said
Shizuko Kakinuma, a researcher at Japan's National Institute
of Radiological Sciences who sits on an independent
committee investigating the Fukushima Daiichi accident.
"With a Japanese diet, that's unlikely," she said in an
interview with The Wall Street Journal. One or two meals
wouldn't have much effect.
Still, the government ought to increase its testing of
cattle for radiation contamination to at least one animal
from each herd, said Ms. Kakinuma, as it is possible to
lower the amount of radioactive cesium in contaminated
animals to safe levels.
"It would be better not to rush them to the butcher,"
said Ms. Kakinuma.
Officials in Fukushima said the prefecture had performed
external tests on all cattle raised in zones near the
nuclear plant where radiation levels have been high. The
cattle whose meat proved contaminated had cleared those
tests, said Yutaka Kashima, an official in the prefecture's
animal husbandry section.
The prefecture also asked farmers to fill out a
questionnaire to help determine the risk of exposure.
Questions included what kind of water the cattle drank,
where they were housed and what kind of food they ate. The
farm that produced the contaminated meat had said it hadn't
given its cattle contaminated feed—which turned out to be
untrue, Mr. Kashima said.
The farmer later admitted he had fed his cattle straw
that had been exposed to the elements—as well as radiation
fallout—and that subsequent tests found to contain extremely
high levels of radioactive cesium. That caused internal
contamination that wasn't detectable by the prefecture's
Fukushima and other localities also test some meat from
potentially contaminated areas after the cattle are
butchered. But only a few of those time-consuming test have
been done. A spokesman at the health ministry said that
prior to Saturday's discovery of contaminated meat, the
number of tests conducted on beef from Fukushima was 45—a
sampling that probably represents less than 1% of what has