The health ministry announced new radiation inspection guidelines that will greatly increase the number of samples checked in a bid to reassure consumers that contaminated food is not reaching the market.
The new guidelines, announced March 12, will be implemented from April to coincide with new safety standards for radioactive materials in food.
Although the new standard for radioactive cesium will be 100 becquerels per kilogram for food in general, inspections will begin for any product found with more than 50 becquerels. Food found to have more than 100 becquerels will be banned from shipment.
The lower radiation level was put in place because inspections will be based on random sampling. In addition, health ministry officials wanted to reduce the possibility of produce with radiation levels exceeding 100 becquerels from reaching the market.
Inspections will focus on food products previously found to have more than 50 becquerels of radiation as well as food products detected with that level in the future.
The guidelines will cover the 17 prefectures in eastern Japan that had been asked to check their produce following the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
The tougher inspection guidelines were put in place because of consumer concerns that contaminated food products were still entering the market.
For example, in February, shiitake mushrooms grown on tree logs in Tochigi Prefecture and shipped to a supermarket in Tokyo were found to have 600 becquerels of radioactive cesium.
The 17 prefectures will be divided into two groups. Group A, consisting of Fukushima, Miyagi, Ibaraki, Tochigi, Gunma and Chiba prefectures, which have had higher radiation levels on a number of food products until now, will undergo more detailed inspections.
Group B covers Aomori, Iwate, Akita, Yamagata, Saitama, Tokyo, Kanagawa, Niigata, Yamanashi, Nagano and Shizuoka.
For food products found to have radiation levels exceeding 100 becquerels, the main growing areas in the prefectures in Group A will have to inspect at least three samples a week. Prefectures in Group B will have to inspect one sample a week.
All 17 prefectures will be required to have one sample inspected a week for food products found to have more than 50 becquerels but 100 becquerels or less.
Until now, food inspections were only conducted in regions where produce exceeding 500 becquerels were detected. Produce in surrounding areas were also inspected.
There were no clear guidelines for the number of samples to be tested or the range of the area to be checked. Such details were left up to the discretion of local governments.
A separate guideline was established for seafood, covering a group of five prefectures--Fukushima, Miyagi, Ibaraki, Iwate and Chiba.
If seafood exceeding 50 becquerels is found in any location within those five prefectures, inspections will be conducted in all five prefectures. That guideline was included because of the possibility that seafood found contaminated off the coast of Fukushima could also very easily move to neighboring prefectures.
Stricter inspections for rice will start in October, with each municipality conducting the testing before the rice is shipped out.
Health ministry officials set the tighter web around potentially contaminated food products because they felt it would be impossible to inspect all items due to the limits in the inspection structure at the local government level.
Even with the random sampling for the new inspection guidelines, local governments will have to bear a considerable burden to check the food items because the number of samples to be handled will increase greatly.
However, health ministry officials said there should be no major problems in terms of the inspection technology and structure available at the prefectural level.
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