Fears abroad about radioactive contamination from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant have obliterated the reputation of safety and quality of Japanese agricultural products.
Japanese food exports have plummeted across the board, and government efforts to publicize the safety of the products have been largely ignored or dismissed in markets overseas.
Exports of apples, mainly to Taiwan, had accounted for about 40 percent of the total value of agricultural exports. The value of apple exports between April and June plunged by about 80 percent over the same period last year.
In late July at a supermarket on the outskirts of Taipei, the fruit shelves that normally sold Japanese apples for about 100 yen ($1.30) each were instead offering apples from Chile and New Zealand for about 40 yen each.
Japanese apples usually account for about 30 percent of apple sales at the supermarket, but the store stopped buying apples from Japan after the Fukushima nuclear accident. It said the apples would not sell even at discounts of 60 to 70 percent.
"While the Japanese apples are the most delicious, I will not buy them if there are safe ones from other nations," a 47-year-old female company employee said.
The woman said she often ate Japanese foods, but not anymore.
"For Taiwan, (the Fukushima nuclear accident) is a much more serious and closer issue than Chernobyl," she said.
Another homemaker shopping with a child said, "I stopped buying Japanese fruits after a TV show said they were dangerous."
The government of Aomori Prefecture, which provides about 90 percent of all apple exports, has taken action to quell such fears in Taiwan, the destination of about 90 percent of Japan's apple exports.
In late July, Aomori Governor Shingo Mimura visited Taiwan's health ministry, local television stations and produce companies to publicize the fact that the prefecture was testing for radiation and that the apples were safe.
However, an executive with a Taiwan supermarket said: "While there are many people who do not know that Aomori is more than 300 kilometers away from Fukushima, they do know it is in the same Tohoku region. Consumers are wary."
Aomori Prefecture had increased apple exports, particularly high-end ones, by describing them as the world's best apples that sold for about 1,000 yen each for gift-giving purposes.
However, with the loss of the safety image, apple prices have fallen.
The value of apple exports in May plummeted by 86 percent over last year to 11.31 million yen.
"We cannot export if we cannot make a profit," an Aomori company official said. "If apples that would have gone to exports end up in the domestic market, the prices in Japan would also fall."
According to farm ministry officials, the total value of vegetable and fruit exports in 2010 was 17.3 billion yen; apples accounted for 6.4 billion yen of the total, with exports of 21,074 tons.
Exports of other agricultural products have also been hurt by the negative publicity from the Fukushima nuclear accident.
Farm ministry officials said that as of Aug. 12, 17 nations and regions still had bans on imports of Japanese agricultural products. Most of the bans were for produce from three to 10 prefectures, centered on Fukushima Prefecture.
However, the bans have extended to a much wider area of eastern Japan, which has led to a shift in exports from western Japan.
The Nagano prefectural government has been releasing the results of radiation testing on its website in both English and Chinese to prevent the spread of negative publicity. In fiscal 2010, the prefecture exported 242 tons of grapes and peaches.
However, an annual event in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Thailand displaying agricultural products from Nagano Prefecture is still up in the air for this year.
"Foreign importers are afraid of handling Japanese products," a prefectural government official said.
An official at Fukuoka Dydo Seika Co., which exports agricultural products from around Japan, said, "Even if we publicize the fact that there is no radiation contamination, foreign companies will not even look at agricultural products from eastern Japan."
The company has been able to keep its sales decline to only between 10 and 20 percent by handling more produce from western Japan.
Meat and seafood exports are also suffering.
Reports about the detection of radioactive cesium from beef produced in Fukushima Prefecture have been widely transmitted abroad.
An official with Dah Chong Hong (Japan) Ltd., a Tokyo-based company that mainly exports fresh produce to Hong Kong, said, "After the natural disasters, we provided beef for the first time to Hong Kong in late July, but will not likely sell much."
The Hokkaido fisheries cooperative resumed exports of salmon from early July to China.
One official said: "Products processed in China are shipped to Europe. However, there is a higher sense of caution in Europe toward Japanese products, so we have no idea what the response will be."
According to farm ministry officials, the export value of meats was 39.5 billion yen in fiscal 2010 while the export value of seafood was 136.8 billion yen.
The ministry included an item in this fiscal year's supplementary budget of about 130 million yen to cover half of the purchase price of about 20 million yen for equipment that tests for radioactive substances.
So far, 13 prefectures have bought the equipment for use in exports to certify the safety of the food products.
"While the main purchasers of Japanese agricultural products are the more affluent sectors of the population with a high interest in food safety, those products are a luxury item, so they are vulnerable to negative publicity," said Shinichi Shogenji, a professor of agricultural economics at Nagoya University. "The first thing is to have Japanese consumers feel assured. The best message would be to have Japanese, who are very demanding, purchase the products after making calm decisions."
(This article was written by Yuriko Suzuki and Junichi Bekku.)
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