Stricter government safety standards to control the level of radioactive substances in food went into effect April 1, and many farmers are not happy about it.
On April 6, the central government banned shipments of bamboo shoots from five municipalities in Chiba and Ibaraki prefectures and "shiitake" mushrooms from three cities in Ibaraki because they exceeded the new government safety standards for radiation levels.
"I cannot understand why the safety standard was drastically strengthened," said 71-year-old Seichu Sato, whose shiitake mushrooms were banned from shipment. "I wonder how I should make a living."
The previous government safety standards banned shipments of food containing more than 500 becquerels per kilogram of food, but as of April 1, the ceiling is anything more than 100 becquerels per kilogram.
The government instructed Ibaraki and Chiba prefectures to suspend shipments of bamboo shoots that were harvested in the cities of Itako, Tsukubamirai and Omitama in Ibaraki Prefecture and Abiko city, and Sakae town in Chiba Prefecture, after radioactive cesium was measured at levels of between 130 to 240 becquerels in samples.
"If we cannot ship our products due to natural climate, we have no other options," said a 69-year-old farmer who owns about 9,900 square meters of bamboo forest in Kisarazu, Chiba Prefecture. "It is inconsolable for us to be unable to sell our products due to the standard that was changed."
In Ibaraki Prefecture, it was the first time that shipments of bamboo shoots have been suspended.
The government also instructed Ibaraki Prefecture to suspend shipment of shiitake mushrooms that were cultivated outdoors on fallen logs in the cities of Moriya, Hitachiomiya and Tsukubamirai. Radioactive cesium of 160 to 960 becquerels was detected in the mushrooms.
From April 1-6, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare received 1,459 reports from local governments on the results of food inspections. Of them, nine reports showed that inspections detected radioactive cesium exceeding the previous standards.
However, the number of reports that exceeded the new, stricter standards jumped to 42.
The products with higher radioactive cesium readings were shiitake cultivated on logs; dried shiitake; bamboo shoots; and fish.
"It is a matter of course that radioactive cesium was detected in those products because we are requiring local governments to put priority on the inspections of products from which high radioactive cesium had already been detected," a ministry official said.
Consumer organizations said households should not feel overly anxious over the fact that more products are being banned from shipment, noting it is only because safety standards have been strengthened.
"Products contaminated with cesium have been placed under regulation (of shipment suspension)," said Hisa Anan, secretary-general of Consumers Japan. "The fact is important (that new standards now apply and are functioning properly)."
While urging consumers not to feel stressed, Anan also cautioned them to remain aware that radioactive contamination in foodstuffs is still an issue.
"It is a matter of course that some products have exceeded the new standards," added Mariko Sano, secretary-general of the Japan Housewives’ Association. "Rather, we have to pay attention to the fact that many other products have yet to undergo inspections."
Meanwhile, in the mountainous town of Murata in Miyagi Prefecture, where Sato has made a living for more than 40 years growing shiitake, 350 becquerels of cesium was detected earlier this month from shiitake cultivated on logged trees.
As a result, the government instructed the prefecture to suspend shiitake shipments from the town, including Sato's.
Although Sato also grows rice, his income has mainly come from shiitake cultivation. He said he usually earns more than 1 million yen (about $12,500) a year from harvesting shiitake in spring and autumn. But all that is now done.
"Shiitake cultivation is over (for my family)," lamented Sato. "I cannot have my children succeed me in this job."
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