The farm ministry has instructed shops to drop their own radioactivity standards for food and fall in line with new, less stringent national maximums.
The section handling food retailing at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries said on April 20 that varying standards, even if they were more exacting, would cause confusion among consumers concerned about fallout from the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
“The state standards were set after they were determined to be more than sufficient to ensure food safety,” an official at the section said. “If there are various standards, it will be confusing. Some retailers are already competing with each other, saying their food products are safer than those of competitors.”
Food producers had been pressing for the edict following the introduction of the new guidelines this month. Those guidelines limit levels of radioactive cesium to 100 becquerels per kilogram for common foods, 50 becquerels per kg for milk and infant foods and 10 becquerels per kg for drinking water.
The producers are complaining that some retailers are insisting that they will only buy food products with no detectable radioactive contamination despite the new standards.
Hiroshi Tsuchida, an official in charge of quality control at the national confederation of Seikatsu Club cooperatives, a group of 33 cooperatives in 21 prefectures, said the edict would only backfire.
“We set our own criteria because consumers don’t trust the national standards,” he said. “If the government tries to enforce only its standards, it will only hurt its credibility.”
The federation sets stricter criteria and conducts checks on almost all food items.
The ministry’s instruction to 270 industry groups of supermarket chains, food manufacturers and restaurants emphasizes that the new standards are tougher than international ones.
It also says that voluntary safety checks should be in line with the figures set under the Food Sanitation Law to “avert excess regulation and confusion.”
The edict also calls for outsourcing checks to bodies that are capable of conducting credible inspections. It explains how to obtain scientifically reliable results and asks producers and retailers to follow a similar procedure if they carry out checks themselves.
The consumer group Shufuren criticized the instruction. Mariko Sano, who heads the group’s secretariat, acknowledged that varying safety limits could cause confusion among shoppers.
But she said the government should not try to regulate the practices of private-sector retailers, which believe selling food items using their own standards adds value to the goods.
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