Nearly four years after a massive tsunami caused the catastrophic nuclear disaster that sprung radioactive leaks at three reactors of Fukushima's coastal Daiichi power plant, Japanese officials are reporting that foods produced in the country's north-central prefecture are all but radiation-free and, on the whole, safe to consume. On Tuesday, Fukushima official Tsuneaki Onami told Japan Today that for the first time since 2011, rice grown in the area passed Japan's stringent radiation checks. 360,000 tons of rice—nearly all of Fukushima's 2014 harvest—were tested, and all of it fell short of the 100 becquerel per kilogram limit set by the Japanese government after the accident.
In spite of its small size and limited farmland availability, Japan produces about 9 million metric tons of rice per year, and, because of the grain's centrality to the traditional Japanese diet, its cultivation is subsidized by the government. The Fukushima disaster dealt a decisive blow to nearby rice paddies. Though the rice grown in the area represents only a small amount of Japan's per-year production, portions of both 2012's and 2013's Fukushima-grown rice tested over the acceptable limit of radiation and had to be destroyed, according to a report sent to MUNCHIES from representatives of Japan's Food Industry Affairs Bureau. To date, over 30 million tests of bags of rice have been conducted in Japan, with levels of radioactivity decreasing year by year.
Because of its high prevalence in the Japanese diet, rice has attracted the most attention with regards to how it has been affected by the nuclear fallout. But other Japanese foods became tainted, too—though not as much as you might expect. Agricultural crops, whose production can be controlled through soil tillage and other radioactivity-reducing measures (more on those later) were already safe to eat shortly after the nuclear incident. But wild foods that can't be managed by the human hand remain unsafe to consume.
Kho Morishita is a representative of Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF). In an email, he told MUNCHIES that given the scope of the Daiichi meltdown, the overall security of Japan's food supply is reassuring.
"The effect on foods remains very limited as of now," he said. He did point out that wild plants such as mushrooms and game meat such as venison and boar—which feed on greenery that may still be absorbing radioactivity from the soil—remain a dicier proposition. "If these products have been detected, restrictions are imposed immediately on distribution," he said.
Surprisingly, given that radioactivity levels tend to build up rapidly in fish and seafood, levels of radiation tested in migratory Japanese fish have been found to be minimal. Fish that don't migrate and remain in waters close to the coast where the power plant is located are riskier; since the accident, all coastal and trawl fishing in the area has been, and remains, suspended, according to a second report shared with MUNCHIES by Morishita.
Mistrust of food safety among the Japanese—and among Americans who eat exported Japanese products—remains an issue.
The decontamination of agricultural crops following the 2011 disaster was a fairly straightforward one. In order to remove contaminated soil from farmland, topsoil was stripped using heavy equipment, land was tilled more deeply than usual—to about 11 inches—and topsoil and subsoil were also replaced with each other in a process called reverse tillage. For fruit trees such as grape, persimmon, apple, and pear, surface bark was scraped off, lowering contamination levels by nearly 90 percent. Younger or more delicate fruit trees were power-washed, reducing contamination levels by about 55 percent.
As a result of these measures, Japanese food is, on the whole, now safe to eat. Of all the foods that have been consistently tested since 2011—including grains, vegetables, fruits, beef, and milk—total contamination levels have fallen to a negligible 0.18 percent.
Still, as Morishita pointed out, mistrust of food safety among the Japanese—and among, for example, Americans who eat exported Japanese products—remains an issue.
"Public skepticism on Japanese foods after the nuclear accident is an important thing," he said. Nevertheless, given the country's rigorous and very public testing of the food supply, he feels confident that that trust will soon be regained. "I am sure that the confidence towards Japanese foods will be recovered," he said.
Maybe not immediately, though. As one commenter wrote on the Japan Today article, "I love Japan and try to support their economy, but I wouldn't touch this rice with a ten-foot spoon."