With harvest season in full swing, radiation checks for rice grown in Fukushima Prefecture this season so far are giving the Japanese staple a clean bill of health, good news for growers and consumers.
The prefecture said one-third of the total harvest has been examined, and no sample so far has exceeded the state's standard for radiation levels.
At a checking facility in Motomiya, some 5,000 bags containing 30 kilograms of newly harvested rice are brought in each day.
"We handle 3,000 bags a day," an official at the facility said as the bags passed one after another through the testing equipment.
Before last year's accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the prefecture produced around 450,000 tons of rice annually. Following the disaster, planting was banned in some areas. As a result, this year's rice harvest is expected to total 360,000 tons, or some 12 million bags.
The prefecture suffered a setback last year when rice exceeding the standard at that time was discovered after the prefecture had declared its rice safe.
This year, the prefecture has distributed 193 testing machines to check all bags of rice, allocating a budget of about 11 billion yen ($140 million), including manpower costs, to the endeavor.
The prefecture had expected one machine to handle 1,000 bags a day, but the actual pace has proved faster. It said some 4 million bags have so far been tested.
"The reasons for that are the equipment's high performance and the fact that workers have gotten used to the job," a prefectural official explained, adding that tests on this year's entire harvest are expected to be finished by year's end.
The prefecture said so far it has not found rice with radioactive cesium levels exceeding the state standard of 100 becquerels per kilogram.
As the checks proceed, shipments have also picked up their pace.
"We have received inquiries for purchases this year," said an official at the JA Zen-Noh Fukushima. "With the all-bag checks, there is no concern about safety."
The JA Zen-Noh Fukushima, part of the National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations, aims to ship 3 million bags of rice this season.
The JA Michinoku-Adachi in Motomiya city, which plans to handle some 370,000 bags, said it has already shipped the equivalent of around 10,000 bags. The association said it has also received orders for 60,000 bags from a major wholesaler in the Kansai region, western Japan.
"We are expecting shipments to go smoothly," a JA Michinoku-Adachi executive said.
However, double radiation testing has delayed shipping in some areas.
In districts where radiation levels of more than 50 becquerels per kilogram were detected in last year's harvest, this year's rice must undergo the national government's spot checking tests to lift shipment restrictions. This is in addition to the prefecture's tests on all bags of rice.
In the spot checking system, a district as a whole cannot ship rice unless all farmers who are subject to tests pass them. The rule led to backups in shipment in some districts, however, and the central government responded by making changes to testing procedures in the middle of this month. So far, 288 of the prefecture's 304 districts have completed the spot checks.
Shipment restrictions have been lifted in all districts in Koriyama, a city responsible for about 10 percent of the prefecture's total rice production. But because the tests are time-consuming, the JA Koriyama-shi said it has shipped just one-tenth the amount of rice it had in the same period last year.
And because the test is required even if the rice is consumed by the growers, delays in checking mean that some farmers have not yet eaten the rice they produced.
"The test is necessary, but it doesn't make sense if a farmer buys other farmers' rice," said Harumitsu Watanabe, 31, in Fukushima city.
(This article was written by Tetsuya Kasai and Seiko Sadakuni.)
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