Shizuoka Prefecture said June 9 that 679 becquerels of radioactive cesium were detected per kilogram in refined tea leaves processed by a plant in its jurisdiction, exceeding the national safety standard of 500 becquerels per kilogram.
The cesium was detected during a voluntary inspection by a Tokyo catalog retailer of food, which purchases tea leaves from the refinery. Part of the products inspected contained cesium in excess of the safety standard.
The "Honyama" brand tea was made from this year's first harvest at a refinery in Aoi Ward in Shizuoka city. Shizuoka Prefecture has requested the refinery to recall products and suspend shipments, and plans to conduct sampling inspections at the 100 or so tea refineries in the same area as early as next week.
The central government will examine the results of those inspections to decide on the necessity and the extent of coverage of a ban on shipments.
The refined tea leaves, known as "seicha," are made by removing scum from "aracha," or unrefined, dried tea leaves, which are produced by heating with steam and then drying fresh tea leaves picked from the tea plant.
Shizuoka Prefecture obtained those samples and had them analyzed at the Yokohama Quarantine Station of the health ministry. The catalog retailer has already suspended shipments and is recalling the products, sources said.
The Honyama brand of tea is harvested in Aoi and Suruga wards of Shizuoka city. Shizuoka Prefecture is the No. 1 producer of tea in Japan, with an annual total harvest of about 35,000 tons in unrefined, dried tea leaves. Last year, Shizuoka city alone produced 3,240 tons of unrefined, dried tea leaves, with the Honyama brand accounting for two-thirds of that amount.
"According to an estimate, cesium in refined tea leaves is diluted 85 times in brewed tea, so there is no risk on human health," said a prefectural government official.
The Shizuoka prefectural government also inspected refined tea leaves from this year's first harvest from 19 tea-growing areas within the prefecture. The radioactive cesium levels were below safety standards for eight areas. The prefecture announced June 9 that no sample from the remaining 11 areas exceeded safety standards.
"All 19 growing areas have cleared the standards. I really feel relieved to learn that the first phase of inspections is over," said Heita Kawakatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture governor, emphasizing that radioactive cesium above national safety standards was not spotted in any of the 19 areas inspected by the prefecture.
On May 18, Kawakatsu issued a "safety declaration" on tea leaves grown in the prefecture on the grounds that none of the raw tea leaves inspected produced concentrations in excess of safety standards.
When the central government later called for inspection of unrefined, dried tea leaves, the prefecture opposed the call and said there was no reason to do so. The prefecture finally agreed to inspect refined tea leaves, saying that "all the unrefined, dried tea leaves from this year's first harvest must have already been refined." The fact that no sample exceeded safety levels according to the prefecture's inspection would have meant a perfect opportunity to advertise the safety of tea leaves from the prefecture.
When asked about the voluntary inspection by the Tokyo catalog retailer of food that spotted cesium in excess of the standard in Honyama tea, Kawakatsu reiterated that brewed tea was safe.
"We may have results like this at particular locations," a senior official at the economy and industry division of the prefectural government said at a news conference.
Meanwhile. anxiety is spreading within the industry.
"To regain consumer confidence, I just wish that harmful rumors wouldn't spread further," said Yoshio Masui, president of the Shizuoka Cha Ichiba (Shizuoka tea market).
Since the announcement that inspections would take place, many customers have returned or are not buying first-harvest tea. Quite a few consumers have called markets concerned about this year's tea and have inquired about any remaining stock from last year.
"I hear the prices of tea leaves from outside Shizuoka Prefecture are on the rise," Masui said. "I want there to be standards with scientific grounds."
Beverage manufacturers, which rely on tea leaves to produce tea beverages, are also busy gathering information. While they are stepping up voluntary inspection measures, they may be obliged to switch suppliers.
"Figures exceeded the safety standard only in a small part of Shizuoka Prefecture, but consumer reaction is anybody's guess," said an official at Ito En Ltd., a leading tea-beverage manufacturer. The company is already voluntarily inspecting all its tea leaves.
Coca-Cola (Japan) Co. also deals in tea leaves from Shizuoka Prefecture, although Coca-Cola has yet to purchase this year's tea leaves. The company will step up inspections using radiation meters introduced at its research facilities, an official said.
Kagoshima Prefecture, second in Japan in the production of unrefined, dried tea leaves, is also nervous because about 70 percent of the tea it produces is refined at processing plants in Shizuoka Prefecture and go under the name of Shizuoka tea on store shelves.
"What I fear the most is that the latest report may give the impression that tea is dangerous, kicking off a further fall in the consumption of tea," said a prefectural government official.
Tea is an important export of Japan. Exports stood at 2,232 tons last year, the figure doubling over five years. Forty-six percent of that quantity is exported to the United States, where restaurants and retailers specialized in tea are rapidly multiplying amid a fitness fad.
The Japan Tea Exporters' Association said the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant was followed by many requests from overseas to buy up all stock of last year's tea. The orders stopped coming in when cesium in excess of the safety standard was detected in tea leaves from neighboring Kanagawa Prefecture in May.
"We got no response when we sent out samples of the first-harvest tea," said a senior official of the association.
Reports by major U.S. newspapers about radioactivity detected in Japanese tea took a heavy toll.
Overseas, tea from Japan tends to be perceived as such rather than as a produce of a specific area, but some people know about tea grown in Shizuoka Prefecture.
"We are lost for the rest of this year," the senior official with the tea association said.
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