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Sunday, April 3, 2011
Fukushima farmers seek to prove their food is safe
By JUN HONGO
Farmers from Fukushima Prefecture affected by the nuclear disaster held an open-air market Saturday in Tokyo amid the spread of unfounded rumors over the safety of their fresh produce.
"It is not justifiable that products from Fukushima, which haven't been banned from the market, are being affected" by the crisis, said JA Touzai Shirakawa's Masaichi Mimura, executive director of the agricultural cooperative in southern Fukushima.
In an attempt to prove the safety of their products, Mimura used a Geiger counter in front of the crowd and tested the buckets of rice, strawberries, cucumbers and tomatoes that were being sold.
"See? The counter shows no irregularities. Everything is safe," Mimura said.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan on March 21 placed an indefinite ban on sales of spinach and "kakina" from Fukushima and neighboring prefectures after samples were found to be abnormally radioactive. Milk produced in the region is also prohibited from being sold for human consumption.
The announcement was followed later that week with test results by the health ministry that saw 25 of the 35 sampled vegetables from Fukushima and surrounding areas exceeding the government's limit of cesium of 500 becquerels per kilogram. Twenty-one of those also surpassed the iodine limit of 2,000 becquerels.
Alarmed consumers were quick to shun products that were being shipped out of the area, while the list of economies that have restricted imports has grown to include the United States, Australia, South Korea and Taiwan.
But JA's Mimura expressed concern that in some places Fukushima produce — even items certified as safe — has been kept out of reach of consumers.
"We've had cases in which we were told by some markets that our produce can't be circulated just because of where it was coming from," he said.
The farmers' market, which opened Friday in Yurakucho and runs until Monday, is an attempt to provide evidence that Fukushima produce is safe to consume.
Customers were convinced and appear willing to support the farmers.
Sasaki, a Tokyo housewife who refused to give her first name, said she had no issue with purchasing Fukushima strawberries.
"I don't want to overreact and avoid buying food that is completely safe," she said. "It is the least I can do here in Tokyo, in order to help out those in Fukushima who were hit by this crisis."
JA Touzai Shirakawa brought in 10 tons of rice from Fukushima for the occasion.
"We were worried how things will turn out, but it looks like it will be sold out by Monday if we keep up the pace," Mimura said.
But what happens afterward is still unclear.
Mimura, who grows rice and vegetables in Shirakawa, said preparations for the summer growing season should be in full swing at this time, but this year, everything has been put on hold.
The Japan Agricultural Cooperative released a statement Thursday saying it will seek advance payment of damages from Tokyo Electric Power Co. on behalf of the farmers, but nothing has been settled yet.
"We've been told to put off preparations (for the summer)," Mimura said. "I'm not quite sure what happens next."
Papers of origin
The government will issue certificates to identify where farm products were grown before they are shipped overseas to allay safety concerns over radiation from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.
The plan was endorsed at a meeting of senior vice ministers of various ministries and agencies.
They also agreed on a plan to convey accurate information to foreign governments via Japanese embassies and other diplomatic missions to keep foreign consumers from overreacting.
The European Union has been calling on Japan to issue certificates of origin for its agricultural products.
Although the impact on sales of manufactured products has been limited, the government is preparing to issue certificates of origin for those products as well.