EDITORIAL: More stringent labels on fish products needed
Fishermen in Fukushima Prefecture recently went back to their livelihoods for the first time since the nuclear disaster last year. For the past 15 months, they had voluntary suspended their operations.
Their catches were sold at retail stores within the prefecture on a trial basis.
We sincerely hope they get back on their feet soon. Putting their offerings through thorough radiation tests will be a sure way to win back customers still leery of sea produce following the reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima No.1 nuclear power plant.
Two kinds of octopus, as well as shellfish, were selected for the initial shipments. No detectable amounts of radioactive cesium were found in these species in regular testing done after the disaster.
After being tested for radiation beforehand, the octopus and shellfish were boiled and put on sale. Sales were fairly brisk.
Fishermen in Fukushima Prefecture plan to start test sales outside the prefecture to gauge overall consumer reaction.
Fishermen who are still idle are receiving compensation from Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the crippled nuclear power plant.
Stable livelihoods are vital for rebuilding the ravaged local communities.
The government’s new food safety standards on radioactive cesium levels, introduced in April, set the limit at 100 becquerels per kilogram for common food items. The new ceiling is five times stricter than the previous, provisional limit.
However, the prefectural fishing cooperative has adopted its own limit of 50 becquerels.
Naturally, people have different levels of anxiety about radioactive contamination. There are many who feel they may still be at risk if they eat food containing radioactive materials even if the levels of contamination are below the safety limit.
Only small samples from large catches of seafood can be tested for radiation. Unlike agricultural or livestock products, marine produce generally cannot be strictly linked to specific areas since fish swim far and wide.
To reassure consumers about the safety of seafood caught off Fukushima Prefecture, local fishermen need to adhere to some simple common-sense steps. They must make sure that careful radiation tests are carried out before shipment and fully disclose information about both the test methods and results.
It is also crucial to sell seafood that has been found to contain no detectable levels of radioactivity or marine produce meeting the safety standards.
As for shipments out of the prefecture, wholesalers may be unwilling to buy seafood caught off Fukushima Prefecture because of concerns about sales.
Direct sales to consumers should also be considered as many people are keen to support disaster-hit areas by buying food products from the areas, so long as they know they are safe.
In Pacific waters off Fukushima Prefecture and in Tokyo Bay, TEPCO and the central and local governments are doing radiation tests on samples of seawater, mud from the seabed, fish and living things they eat.
Amounts of radioactive cesium have fallen significantly or to undetectable levels in many kinds of fish that swim near the surface or in the middle depths of the sea. This includes most migratory species of fish, along with squid and octopus, according to the Fisheries Agency.
In contrast, fish that live near the seabed are often found to contain levels of radiation above the safety threshold. This seems to be explained by the fact that cesium tends to be absorbed in mud on the sea floor.
Radiation tests of samples of seawater and seabed mud should be carried out more frequently and at more locations for further analysis.
Place-of-origin labels of fish usually show the prefectures where the landing ports are located. But this can be a disadvantage because it does not make clear where the fish was actually caught.
A growing number of labels on seafood products caught in Pacific waters off eastern Japan, including Fukushima Prefecture, show the name of the prefecture or one of the seven sea areas into which the region has been divided. This new labeling system is being promoted by the Fisheries Agency.
Further efforts should be made to provide consumers with more accurate and detailed information about seafood products from the region.