Cloud of suspicion in China over rice from near Japan’s nuclear meltdown zone

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December 2, 2018
Beijing has lifted a ban on rice imports from Niigata prefecture, neighbouring the Fukushima disaster area, but consumers will take some convincing to buy it
The Chinese authorities may be ready to lift a ban on importing rice from a Japanese prefecture neighbouring a nuclear disaster site but Chinese consumers might need more convincing.
China’s General Administration of Customs announced on Wednesday that it had lifted a ban on rice imports from Niigata, one of a number of prefectures neighbouring Fukushima, home to the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which went into meltdown and released radioactive material in the aftermath of a tsunami in March 2011.
According to the World Health Organisation, radioactive iodine and caesium in concentrations above the Japanese regulatory limits were detected in some food commodities soon after the disaster.
China responded by banning imports of food and livestock feed from 10 prefectures.
More than seven years later, Niigata is the first area to have the ban lifted on its rice. “After evaluation, we permit Niigata rice to be imported,” the customs administration said on its website.
It said the rice was produced in the prefecture and processed in registered factories, and that when imported it should satisfy Chinese laws and regulations on food safety and plant health.
 
But Chinese internet users weren’t so convinced.
“The officials would rather sacrifice Chinese people’s health for diplomacy,” one person said on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform.
“Whoever wants to buy the rice can buy it,” another wrote. “I only ask for it to be properly marked on the packaging.”
In all, 54 countries and regions imposed temporary import bans on Japanese food from affected areas immediately after the nuclear disaster. Since then, 27 have lifted their restrictions and Fukushima prefecture shipped 210 tonnes of agricultural products abroad last year, mainly to Malaysia and Thailand.
It follows a years-long clean-up effort and a concerted campaign by the Japanese government to promote agricultural products from Fukushima and neighbouring regions, both domestically and internationally.
A page on the Japanese government website, titled “Fukushima Foods: Safe and Delicious”, is dedicated to the clean-up and monitoring efforts and features photos of farmers encouraging tourists to try their rice, vegetables and fruit.
Hopes that the ban would be eased grew as relations between the two countries thawed. An agreement was reached in March to hold talks in Tokyo between Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, after which Fukushima officials told the South China Morning Post they hoped Beijing would reopen the door to exports of agricultural and fisheries products. Those prospects rose in late October with the first visit to China by a Japanese prime minister in seven years.
There were grass-roots efforts, too. Last week, a group of Chinese reporters led by Xu Jingbo, from the Tokyo-based, Chinese-language Asia News Agency, quietly visited northeast Japan, stopping in disaster-hit areas including Fukushima.
Xu told the South China Morning Post he had organised the trip because he wanted there to be fair coverage of food safety and the Fukushima nuclear clean-up.
“We should look at the Fukushima nuclear leak in a scientific and fair way,” he said.
The group visited the power station and government centres that test radiation residues on agricultural products and seafood. He said that since the accident, the Japanese government had cleaned up debris and contaminated soil, digging 30cm into the earth and transporting the soil to a remote area for treatment.
“The radiation level tested on my body was only 0.03 millisieverts after the visit, about 1/80 of taking a CAT scan in hospital and about the same level as riding on an aeroplane,” Xu said.
But lingering fear and opposition in China and neighbouring regions remains strong. Last week, voters in Taiwan showed overwhelming support for keeping a ban on food imports.
On the Chinese mainland, every movement towards lifting the ban has provoked hostility online.
Xu’s Weibo account was flooded with comments, calling him a “traitor”. Some questioned whether he received money from the Japanese government for such “propaganda”.
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An article published on the WeChat account Buyidao, operated by the state-run Global Times, questioned the Japanese government and media, saying they had covered up the severity of the radiation in Fukushima and dealt with the clean-up irresponsibly.
“Tokyo Electric Power [the owner of the plant] and the Japanese government have not been honest with the Japanese people and the world, the panic runs inside Japan and has permeated to other countries,” it said.
On the rice ban lifted this week, Guo Qiuju, a radiation expert at Peking University’s physics department, said the Chinese government had its own standard and detection methods.
“China has strict levels on radiation levels detected in foods; if it’s detected below a certain level, it can be assumed to be safe,” she said.
But public concerns persist.
A shopper at Alibaba’s Hema Xiansheng supermarket in Shenzhen she said she probably would not buy any products from the affected areas even if the ban was completely lifted. Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post.
“I’m afraid of what might happen to me,” she said.
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Abe asks Xi to lift Japan food import ban following nuclear disaster

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Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, poses with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Friday.
December 2, 2018
BUENOS AIRES – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to lift his country’s ban on Japanese food imports introduced following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident, a senior government official said Saturday.
Abe’s request came after Japan’s farm ministry said Thursday that Beijing has allowed rice produced in Niigata Prefecture, more than 200 kilometers away from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, to be shipped to China.
During their meeting Friday on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires, Abe, welcoming Beijing’s latest decision, urged Xi to abolish the rest of the import restrictions based on scientific grounds as soon as possible, according to the Japanese official.
Xi responded to Abe by saying that China will take appropriate action in keeping with scientific assessments, the official added.
Aside from Niigata rice, China maintains its ban on all other Japanese foods and feedstuff initially subject to the import restrictions, which include products from 10 of the country’s 47 prefectures, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries said.
Other countries, including South Korea and Singapore, restrict food imports against a backdrop of radiation concerns, while Taiwan has decided to keep its ban on food imports from five Japanese prefectures intact as a result of a referendum on Saturday.
The accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex was triggered by the devastating March 2011 earthquake-tsunami disaster that hit northeastern Japan.
As for the situation in the East China Sea, Abe called on Xi to improve the unstable situation in the contested waters, emphasizing the importance of restarting talks about a 2008 bilateral accord on joint gas development there.
The Japanese and Chinese leaders also reaffirmed that U.N. sanctions — aimed at preventing North Korea from developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles — should be fully implemented until Pyongyang achieves denuclearization as promised.
With trade tensions between the United States and China intensifying, Abe told Xi that China should take concrete measures to stem its alleged unfair business practices such as stealing intellectual property and technology from other nations.
The Japanese prime minister expressed hope that Xi will have a “valuable discussion” with U.S. President Donald Trump at their planned meeting on the fringes of the G-20 summit.
In October, Abe arrived in Beijing for the first official visit to China by a Japanese political leader in nearly seven years. Until late last year, Sino-Japanese relations had been at their worst level in decades over a territorial row in the East China Sea.
During his stay in Beijing, Abe held talks with Xi and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, in which they agreed to accelerate new economic cooperation between Japan and China by changing the dynamics of bilateral relations “from competition to collaboration.”

China lifts ban on Niigata rice in place since nuclear disaster

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November 29, 2018
China on Nov. 28 lifted its import ban on rice produced in Niigata Prefecture but maintained restrictions imposed since the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster on other food from 10 prefectures.
During their summit in October, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urged Chinese President Xi Jinping to lift the import restrictions on Japanese agricultural and other products.
China apparently examined the distances and wind directions from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant and decided to remove the ban on Niigata rice.
Japanese private companies have long hoped to resume rice exports to China, which accounts for about 30 percent of the world market for the staple food.
The Japanese government plans to ask the Chinese government to further ease restrictions on other food products.
The Abe administration has been promoting overseas sales of Japanese food products. It has set a goal of 1 trillion yen ($8.8 billion) as the annual export amount of agricultural, forestry and fishery products, as well as processed food.
But after the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, 54 countries and regions imposed restrictions on food imports from Japan.
Although the restrictions have been gradually eased, eight countries and regions–China, the United States, South Korea, Singapore, the Philippines, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau–still ban imports of certain products from certain areas of Japan, according to the agricultural ministry.

Abe and Xi expected to discuss food import ban, but chances of progress uncertain

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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is due to visit Beijing this week, with China’s food import ban on Japan likely to be discussed
 
Oct 21, 2018
China’s import ban on Japanese food introduced following the March 2011 nuclear disaster is likely to be discussed between Japanese and Chinese leaders in upcoming summit talks in Beijing this week, though whether any progress can be made on the discussion is uncertain.
China has taken a cautious approach to relaxing the import regulations due to safety concerns among the public.
China has a ban in place on food imports from 10 prefectures: Fukushima, Miyagi, Ibaraki, Tochigi, Gunma, Saitama, Chiba, Tokyo, Niigata and Nagano. Food products made in other prefectures need to have certificates that confirm they have passed radioactive checks.
China introduced the ban because of concerns over radioactive contamination due to the meltdown at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 power plant.
Japan has been asking Beijing to lift the ban at an early date.
In an effort to make this happen, Tokyo has explained the examination process for food and provided data related to their safety.
But China has stood pat over concerns that lifting the ban could create public backlash. Also behind the inaction were tensions over the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea that are claimed by Beijing, informed sources said.
Amid warming bilateral ties and an improvement in the public’s perception of Japanese food, Abe and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang agreed in May this year to start working-level talks for a possible easing of the import regulations.
The focus now is on how much progress can be made at the working level before Abe’s three-day visit to China from Thursday, which comes as the two countries mark the 40th anniversary of the entry into force of their peace and friendship treaty, the sources said.
If the ban is relaxed, Japan is expected to make progress toward its goal of attaining ¥1 trillion in annual exports in the agricultural, forestry and fishery sectors, the sources said.
The nuclear disaster led a total 54 economies to introduce import restrictions or strengthen radioactive checks on Japanese food products.
Of them, 29 had scrapped their restrictions as of August this year and 17 others conditionally resumed imports. China is among the eight that maintain import bans on food made in some prefectures.

China opens the door a crack wider to Japanese rice imports

May 15, 2018
Beijing approves more processing facilities but many restrictions remain
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China allows imports of Japanese rice only from approved mills. There is only one such facility now, but Beijing will add two more to the list, potentially expanding Japan’s export market.
TOKYO — The Japanese ramen noodle chain, Ajisen Ramen, operates around 600 restaurants in China. But if you want Japanese rice with your noodles, you must pay about four times the price of a domestic variety. In China, Japanese rice is only for the deep-pocketed.
One reason Japanese rice is so expensive is that China imposes strict controls on imports of the food staple from Japan. Some of these restrictions were introduced after the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011.
But things may soon start to change. On May 9, the two counties struck a deal to increase the Japanese facilities that Beijing approves to process rice bound for its shores. China is a potentially a huge market for Japanese rice, but currently accounts for only 3% of overall exports. Hong Kong and Singapore, the two largest markets, take about 60% of the total.
Japan’s agriculture ministry sees China as vital to achieving its target of increasing annual exports of rice and related products to 100,000 tons. In 2017, Japan exported 11,800 tons of rice, of which only 298 tons went to China. According to one estimate, China consumes about 20 times more rice than Japan.
While the recent deal between the two countries is a step forward, Chinese restrictions and high costs remain major hurdles for Japanese exporters. Most experts also say Japan’s rice exports will remain vulnerable to any political tensions between the two countries.
To export white rice to China, brown rice must first be milled and fumigated at facilities that China has approved as safe. The new deal will expand the number of approved mills and fumigation facilities.
There is currently only one rice mill in Japan approved by China, operated by the National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations (Zen-Noh) in Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo.
The agreement adds two more mills. One is located in Ishikari, on the northern main island of Hokkaido, operated by Hokuren Federation of Agricultural Cooperatives. The other is in Nishinomiya in western Hyogo Prefecture, operated by Shinmei, the nation’s largest rice wholesaler.
A Shinmei executive welcomed the agreement, saying it would enable the company to “respond more swiftly to needs in China.”
In Beijing, Shinmei sells the popular Koshihikari rice variety, grown in central Toyama Prefecture on the Sea of Japan coast, for about 2,600 yen ($23.70) per 2kg. That is nearly double the retail price in Japan, and 80% higher than the price of Koshihikari produced in northeastern Niigata Prefecture and sold in Hong Kong.
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A Japanese farmer in Ibaraki Prefecture tends to his crop using a rice planting machine
One reason Japanese rice is so expensive in China is because of transport costs and distributor margins. Reducing costs is a principal challenge for Japanese rice exporters.
A Shinmei executive said that in addition to an effective marketing campaign in China, increasing rice exports requires serious cost-cutting in Japan.
For its rice exports to China, Shinmei has had to outsource the milling process to Zen-Noh. That means the rice wholesaler has to send rice harvested all across the country to the Zen-Noh plant in Kanagawa.
Since Zen-Noh’s mill and warehouses are not always available, this arrangement requires the time-consuming process of coordinating schedules between the two sides in advance.
As for fumigation to control insects, Beijing has approved only two facilities in Japan, both in Kanagawa. Under the new deal, Japan’s agriculture ministry will register five more fumigation warehouses for exports to China, including facilities in Hokkaido and Hyogo.
The new agreement will allow Shinmei to polish rice at its own mills and to fumigate it at a warehouse in Kobe for shipment to China from Kobe’s port.
China’s restrictions on food imports from Japan following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster are also a barrier to Japanese rice exports. China bans all food from 10 Japanese prefectures, including Fukushima, Miyagi and Niigata.
The import curbs, which cover rice snacks, sake and other rice products, hit the rice industry hard, said Kosuke Kuji, president of Nanbu Bijin, a sake brewer based in Ninohe, Iwate Prefecture.
While Japan and China have set up a task force to discuss steps to ease the restrictions, there is not much reason for optimism about the outcome of the talks, an agriculture ministry official said.
The chairman of the Central Union of Agricultural Co-operatives, Toru Nakaya, is also cautious about the outlook for rice exports to China.
“We do not expect rapid progress, but we welcome the step forward,” Nakaya said of the recent agreement.

Fukushima officials see silver lining in radioactive cloud as Beijing mulls lifting food ban

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Friday, 11 May, 2018
Prefecture troubled by years after nuclear disaster welcomes talks between Beijing and Tokyo that could lead to Chinese ending import restrictions
More than seven years after their prefecture became the scene of the second-worst nuclear disaster in history, trade officials in Fukushima have welcomed reports that Japan and China will discuss lifting Beijing’s ban on imports of food from the region.
 
Most of the discussions focused on developments on the Korean Peninsula, but progress was made on bilateral issues – including food exports from Fukushima and the introduction of a hotline to prevent accidental clashes in the air and at sea – enhancing the recent sense that relations between Beijing and Tokyo are improving after several tense years.
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The Fukushima officials told the South China Morning Post that they hope that translates into Beijing reopening the door to exports of agricultural and fisheries products.
“Fukushima prefecture has been strictly monitoring food products since the accident and I strongly wish for the Chinese government to quickly lift the import restrictions based on the scientific evidence,” said Takahiro Ichimura, director of the prefecture’s Trade Promotion Council.
“Fukushima prefecture is extremely large, covering an area equal to Chiba, Saitama and Kanagawa prefectures as well as Tokyo combined,” he emphasised. “Regarding the nuclear accident, the evacuation area near the power plant is an extremely small part of the prefecture.”
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Fukushima is also an important rice growing region for Japan and is famous for its seafood. In 2010, the year before the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant was crippled by a magnitude-9 earthquake and a series of towering tsunami, around 153 tonnes of food were exported.
Fifty-four countries and regions imposed temporary import bans immediately after the double disaster, when radiation levels increased to unsafe levels and the Japanese government swiftly stopped shipments of food until safety could be guaranteed.
Since then, 27 countries have lifted their restrictions and the prefecture shipped 210 tonnes of agricultural products abroad last year, mainly to Malaysia and Thailand, although there has been a reluctance among some consumers to buy the products because of the lingering fear of radiation poisoning.
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Overseas exports closer to home – those to South Korea, mainland China and Taiwan – have not picked up, however, due to the same concerns about radioactivity.
At the moment, China bans imports of food from 10 prefectures in northeast Japan and even requires food from prefectures not subject to its total ban to include a certificate indicating its origin. Some products from outside the 10 prefectures are also required to undergo radiation inspections.
As recently as March, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor turned down a request during a visit by Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Kono to lift the city’s ban on imports of fresh produce and milk from Fukushima and four neighbouring prefectures.
Lam also insisted that targeted radiation testing on products from the rest of Japan would continue.

China considers easier access for Japanese food

 
2018/5/10
Li, Abe agree on experts’ panel to discuss new regulations
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A farmer harvests rice in Tottori Prefecture, Japan in October 2017.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Wednesday signed an agreement to set up a joint body of experts to discuss the relaxation of an import ban on Japanese agricultural products, according to Japanese media reports.
 
The ban on products from Fukushima and nine other Japanese prefectures was imposed by China after the 2011 earthquake and nuclear power plant accident in Fukushima, reflecting fear of contamination.
 
An agreement was also reached on Wednesday to change the rules for rice exports from Japan to China.
 
Japan has been trying to increase its exports of agricultural products, aiming to reach 1 trillion yen ($9 billion) by 2019. China was the third-largest overseas market for Japanese produce last year at $900 million, according to Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
 
Japan has been lobbying foreign countries to repeal their bans on the nation’s produce. A dispute on this issue with South Korea led to litigation at the WTO, which ruled in favor of Japan on February.
 
“Japan wants international recognition for agricultural products from Fukushima and its vicinity,” Zhang Jifeng, a research fellow with the Institute of Japanese Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said in an interview with the Global Times.
 
“If the ban is lifted I would buy products from Japan,” said a shopper who frequents a Japanese-owned store in Beijing. “I expect that imported products will have passed strict safety requirements on both sides. The Japanese today are consuming their own products and they seem fine,” she said.
 
The agreement also opened the way for more Japanese rice sales to China. Since China first allowed imports of Japanese rice in 2007, all shipments of the grain had to be polished and fumigated at designated facilities in Kanagawa Prefecture, south of capital Tokyo.
 
The approved polishing facilities have been expanded from one to three, and fumigation facilities from five to seven, distributed across Japan. This change is expected to help sales of Japanese rice to China.
 
 “With more facilities for processing rice, Chinese consumers will have more options to buy rice from different Japanese regions,” an official with the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, who only gave his name as Nozoe, said in an interview with Global Times.
 
“Having more facilities will also help speed up the process and lower costs, so we will able to provide Japanese rice at a more agreeable price for Chinese buyers,” he said.
 
Rice is the most consumed grain in both China and Japan, but annual per capita consumption in China, at 105 kilograms per year, is about double that of Japan with 54, according to Japanese government data.
 
Customs data show China imported 4 million tons of rice in 2017, mostly from Southeast Asia. And Japan is trying to expand its presence in China by appealing directly to consumers
 
 “We have now an antenna shop in Shanghai, where you can taste rice from different areas of Japan. E-commerce sites and Japanese restaurants in China also increasingly offer Japanese rice,” said Nozoe. But challenges remain.
 
An antenna shop refers to a physical store run by a government entity with the purpose of market research.
 
“Sales are constant but not very high,” a woman surnamed Zeng, owner of an online shop offering imported food, told the Global Times.