Please eat the vegetables, Japan tells radiation-wary nation

April 15, 2011

Now offered at lunch at a Japanese government restaurant: a rich curry and rice, topped with Fukushima vegetables fresh from the nuclear-emergency zone.

It is part of an unlikely twist in the eat-local movement as the government presses a skeptical public to accept that food from the contaminated northeastern coastline should be purchased, roasted and devoured, not avoided.

“Damage by perception,” reads a poster promoting the revamped menu at Sakuna, located inside a government ministry. “Let’s fight against it.”

When the restaurant opened for business Friday, politicians rushed in, filling a table of 12. Three parliamentarians were there. Same with the foreign minister, Takeaki Matsumoto. Within minutes, waitresses presented the meals. Each curry dish was topped with two button-size cuts of carrot and broccoli, a few mushroom slivers and two silver-dollar slices of purple potato. Cameras clicked, and politicians sampled their lunches and nodded their approval.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan has also been doing his part, urging people to eat food from the disaster-hit areas as a show of support. So has Yukio Edano, the chief cabinet secretary, who went to a farmers market and ate a Fukushima strawberry.

“Only safe produce is being distributed,” Edano said. “Please eat it.”

To be sure, no one is pretending that all Fukushima food is absolutely safe; many products from the nuclear zone are indeed contaminated. But the message from the government is that the Japanese should have faith in a monitoring system intended to keep cesium- and iodine-tained products off the shelves.

The officials hope that their promotion of Fukushima food can end the growing confusion about what is safe and what is dangerous. Four weeks ago, people here heard the first reports that spinach and milk had radiation levels exceeding the nation’s standards, and shipments were restricted. Since then, radioactive elements have continued to leak from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, leaving vast areas of farmland unusable, perhaps for decades.

Farmers from Fukushima and surrounding prefectures now fit into two categories. Some cannot be helped by promotion of any kind, because they have products that truly are unfit for sale or consumption. The rest have products that pass inspection, but they are finding that wholesalers are reluctant to buy them, figuring shoppers will still resist.

“When you talk about Fukushima, it’s a vast area,” said Takanobu Tsuda, a food safety investigator from Japan Agriculture, a powerful union of co-ops. “Some areas farther inland — their food is fine. But some places won’t even put it on the shelves. Even food that has cleared the tests is being left untouched.”

Japan faces consumer fears that stretch beyond its borders. South Korea has temporarily banned vegetables from Fukushima and four other prefectures. China and the United States have banned certain produce and seafood from around the Fukushima area. And earlier this month, India placed a blanket ban on all food from Japan, although it later called that decree “unwarranted” and narrowed the restrictions.

Each day on its Web site, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare publishes a list of tested food products, detailing where the items were grown and the level of contamination. The latest list has 98 items, everything from mackerel to rapeseed. Seventy-six of those products had levels of iodine or cesium below restriction level. But several varieties of Fukushima spinach were laced with cesium. And a sand lance fish, caught 22 miles away from the crippled nuclear plant, contained 12,500 becquerels per kilogram of cesium — about 25 times the legal limit.

Farmers, furious at the Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the Fukushima plant, are demanding some compensation. Mamoru Moteki, the Japan Agriculture chairman, submitted a letter to Tepco on Thursday that called the utility’s disaster response “unacceptable.”

“The foundation of agriculture in the Tohoku and Kanto regions itself is threatened,” Moteki wrote.

As for the uncontaminated food, Fukushima farmers tried to sell some of it last week at an open-air market in Tokyo. One Japan Agriculture executive even tested rice and vegetables with a Geiger counter, trying to prove they were safe.

On Friday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sponsored a smaller indoor farmers market, selling produce from across the northeastern region. A folding table displayed a cornucopia of vegetables: cucumbers from Gunma prefecture, strawberries from Ibaraki, parsnips from Chiba.

Just before noon, parliamentarian Hiroshi Hamamoto walked into the market and grabbed a shopping basket. He stuffed it with tomatoes and leafy greens. Then he reached for a carton containing a bundle of asparagus.

“That’s from Fukushima,” a vendor told him.

Hamamoto nodded and grabbed a second bundle.

Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.

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