It may be hard to believe, but it's already been four years since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster shook Japan and its agricultural industry to the core. Alas, some wounds are harder to heal than others and the aftermath from that fateful March day can still be felt. The latest challenge is this: growers and the Japanese government have been fighting desperately to assuage fears and regain the trust and markets their food products once proudly held.
The Fukushima nuclear disaster, of course, was an accident that occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, caused by an earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. This was the largest nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl meltdown of 1986.
Japan says it has gone to extensive lengths to ensure that the area surrounding the plant is not contaminated. It also goes without saying that a chief concern of said effort has been to minimize any radioactive contamination in food products and ensure that food does not reach the market if it doesn't meet the nation's tough safety laws.
So, it should come as no surprise that Japan's government has decided to pull out all the stops and get their Erin Brockovich on during at the Expo, a recent global food fair held in Milan. Traditional dried peaches and sake—both originating from Japan's Fukushima prefecture—were offered up as part of a four-day campaign. Japan is obviously hoping to allay the international community's fears surrounding Japanese foodstuffs post-Fukushima. OK, so unlike Brockovich, the government didn't actually resort to unveiling the culinary offerings' origin after people had ingested them, but they are on a campaign to get everyone's attention.
"Our aim is to communicate the appeal of Fukushima's traditional cuisine as the region is actively committed to reconstructing itself and ensuring the safety of local food products as well as increasing export and tourism," stated one spokeswoman.
Fukushima's prefectural government claims to have a "perfect" and transparent monitoring system in place to monitor and test all products. Over the last six months, Fukushima has reported only a very small percentage of food as having over-the-limit levels of radiation. For example, only one in a million bags of rice tested were found to have hazardous levels of radiation, while only .01 percent of all aquaculture products were deemed unsafe.
Stefan Merz, an environmental scientist from Vienna University of Technology, just this year published an analysis of the staggering 900,000 food samples collected by authorities in the prefecture between 2011 and 2014. Merz and the other researchers' work has shown that the percentage of products deemed unsafe has decreased from 3.3 to 0.6.
"The prefecture not only blocks shipment of these foodstuffs but also restricts the shipment of foodstuffs from municipalities where these contaminated foodstuffs are grown or produced," reads an information brochure handed out at the Japan pavilion in Milan, stressing that the safety of food products that are on the market "is absolutely ensured." In short, Japan wants you to know that "you can purchase them without anxiety."
Still, government reassurances can only go so far. A cursory glance at the comments section on some English language publications shows the prejudice that Fukushima is facing. But it isn't just foreigners that are skeptical. A survey back in February by the Consumer Affairs Agency in Japan revealed that one in five Japanese shoppers were wary of Fukushima foodstuffs.
But these are still the early stages of recovery for the troubled area of Japan. In September, the first of seven cities finally completely lifted its evacuation order that was put in place after the disaster, but only 200 of some 7,800 residents returned home.
Despite reassurances by the government, it looks as though Fukushima may have a ways to go before everything returns to normal—if it ever will.