STRASBOURG, FRANCE – The European Parliament on Wednesday warned against easing health controls imposed on food products imported from the Fukushima region in the wake of the nuclear meltdowns of 2011.
The checks were imposed on food from the area around the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, which went into meltdown after being hit by massive tsunami, spewing radiation over a wide area in the world’s most serious nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, wants to reduce the list of foods subject to radiation tests before they can be imported into the bloc, which currently includes rice, mushrooms, fish and other seafood.
A resolution passed by a large majority of MEPs called on the commission to withdraw its proposal, saying it was “very difficult to verify whether the measures proposed are sufficient” to protect European consumers and there was reason to think it “could lead to an increase in exposure to radioactive contaminated food.
French Green MEP Michele Rivasi said extra vigilance was needed as the EU negotiates a trade deal with Japan.
MEPs criticized the Commission for not providing them with the data used to decide it was acceptable to relax the restrictions.
The matter will be reviewed in the coming weeks by experts appointed by EU member states, ahead of a vote expected in October, a parliament spokesman told AFP.
Members of the European Parliament’s food safety committee will vote on a text on Thursday (7 September), raising the alarm over a European Commission proposal to partly relax controls on food imports from Fukushima, Japan, which suffered a nuclear disaster in 2011.
The draft resolution, seen by EUobserver, said “there are sufficient reasons to believe that this proposal could lead to an increase in exposure to radioactive contaminated food with a corresponding impact on human health”.
The MEPs’ text highlighted that, under the commission’s proposal, rice and derived products from the Fukushima prefecture would no longer be subject to emergency inspections. It stressed that one of those products is “rice used in baby food and food for young children”.
The text criticised that the commission’s proposal did not justify why some foodstuffs were taken off the list.
However, the MEPs’ concerns may already be outdated.
Danish centre-left MEP Christel Schaldemose, one of the text’s sponsors, spoke to EUobserver on Tuesday over the phone.
“We are completely relying on data from the Japanese side. … We need to be cautious,” she said.
“I wouldn’t say we can’t trust them, but it is worth checking ourselves,” said Schaldemose.
The resolution is an initiative by French Green MEP Michele Rivasi, who has been working on the text since June 2017.
In parallel, Rivasi and two of her Greens colleagues, also asked the commission for an explanation through a written question, on 14 July.
On 22 August, EU commissioner for food safety Vytenis Andriukaitis answered, telling MEPs that the proposed changes are based on publicly available data from the Japanese government.
Andriukaitis included a link to the raw data in a footnote, and said that if MEPs wanted to have a “detailed justification for the proposed changes”, they can get them “by separate mail, upon request”.
According to a commission source, Rivasi will receive this justification after having requested it.
Meanwhile, however, work on the resolution continued, and is now on the agenda for a vote on Thursday.
It received the support from five other MEPs, including two from the two largest political groups in the EU parliament.
The parliament’s text, which is non-binding, also mentioned that Japanese exports of rice could increase under the EU-Japan free trade agreement (FTA), which the commission is expected to wrap up this year.
In a briefing which Green MEP Rivasi gave to journalists last July, according to a summary provided by her office, the French politician implied that the proposal on Fukushima was a bargaining chip in the negotiations for the FTA, and called it a “scandal”.
The left-wing Greens are generally critical of FTAs.
Rivasi referred to a remark commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker made following an EU-Japan summit on 6 July.
“I would like to congratulate prime minister Abe on the remarkable progress Japan has made on making products from the Fukushima region safe, following the 2011 accident,” Juncker had said.
“I am confident and I will work into that direction that we will have after the summer break a further lifting of import measures,” he added.
A commission spokeswoman told EUobserver, however, that the proposed changes are based on a thorough analysis.
“The requirement for pre-testing before export is lifted only for food and feed from a prefecture where sufficient data demonstrate that food and feed is compliant in the last growing season with the strict maximum levels applicable in Japan,” she said.
The emergency restrictions were put in place two weeks after the accident happened, and have already been amended five times.
The decision is taken by a so-called implementing act, which only involves the commission and member states, but not the EU parliament.
Taiwan communicates on the control of foodstuffs from Japan. I note that these are the same limits, concerning Cesium, in the European Union … (according to the last regulation dated 13/07/2017).
In the EU, it’s been a long time since Iodine 131 is no longer controlled.
The article does not mention “other foodstuffs”, for which the maximum import limit in the EU is 100 Bq / kg.
The AEC said the new facility can test up to 1,700 samples per month and would run tests on food samples sent by customs offices in northern Taiwan
The Atomic Energy Council (AEC) yesterday announced that it has established the nation’s first food testing laboratory for radioactive contamination in response to calls from civic groups following last year’s public hearings on the issue of Japanese food imports.
The facility is the first of its kind to obtain certification from the Taiwan Accreditation Foundation (TAF), AEC Department of Radiation Protection Director-General Liu Wen-hsi (劉文熙) said.
The council had already been testing food products for radiation, but the new laboratory would be a separate branch entirely dedicated to testing food, Liu said.
Last year, the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s plan to lift a ban on food imports from Japan’s Gunma, Tochigi, Ibaraki and Chiba prefectures led to a public outcry, amid fears that food from these areas were affected by the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant disaster in March 2011.
At the public hearings, many experts and civic groups questioned the capability of the nation’s ability to detect radioactive contamination in food products.
The council said it receives about 1,400 food samples from the ministry each month and that the new laboratory would be able test up to 1,700 samples per month.
The council received 2,200 food samples in a single month following the Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster, but the monthly average of food samples received for the rest of 2011 was about 1,600, Liu said.
The number of samples sent to the council has not increased significantly over the past few years, the council added.
The new laboratory in Taoyuan’s Longtan District (龍潭) is equipped with five high-purity germanium detectors and employs 12 specialists, increasing resources by one detector and two staff members, Liu said, adding that the laboratory will be testing samples sent by the customs offices in northern Taiwan.
A smaller laboratory run by the council in Kaohsiung tests samples from Taichung and Kaohsiung ports, and is waiting for TAF certification for food testing, he added.
The ministry has determined the maximum allowable level of radioactive residue in foods for three isotopes — iodine-131, cesium-134 and cesium-137 — in the Standards for the Tolerance of Atomic Dust and Radioactivity Contamination in Foods (食品中原子塵或放射能污染容許量標準).
For dairy products and baby foods, the limit is set at 55 becquerels (Bq) of iodine-131, 50Bq of cesium-134 and 50Bq of cesium-137 per kilogram of food, while beverages and bottled water can contain up to 100Bq of iodine-131, 10Bq of cesium-134 or 10Bq of cesium-137 per liter.
As iodine-131 and cesium-134 have shorter half lives, the council is more concerned with cesium-137 contamination in food imported from Japan, Liu said.
Officers from the Beijing Food and Drug Administration check imported food at a supermarket on Thursday.
Report finds many e-commerce sites selling potentially unsafe products
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has urged the Japanese government to take more effective measures to handle the environmental aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster and disclose information to ensure marine environmental safety and the safety of people in other countries.
Hua Chunying, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, made the comment on Thursday following exposure by China’s State television station that food products from areas affected by the nuclear disaster in Japan are being sold in China.
China’s top food regulator promised on Thursday to punish such irregularities involving food safety exposed in China Central Television’s annual World Consumer Rights Day program on Wednesday.
“We have demanded local food and drug supervision authorities investigate the irregularities and transfer criminal suspects to public security authorities,” the China Food and Drug Administration said.
Food and drug authorities must strengthen supervision over food safety and severely punish culprits, it said.
Food from areas affected by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster have been sold on many e-commerce platforms in China and in some brick-and-mortar shops, including dairy, cereal, rice and wine, CCTV reported.
Although some of the products had labeling in Japanese that specified manufacturing locations such as Tokyo and Tochigi, they were covered by Chinese labels that only stated the manufacturing location as Japan, the report said.
China has banned the importation of food and animal feed from Tokyo and 11 prefectures, including Fukushima, Niigata-ken and Tochigi, since April 2011 to guard against risks, according to the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine.
Major supermarkets and e-commerce platforms in Beijing started to inspect imported food products following the CCTV report and found no product from any of the 12 areas, Ji Ye, an official at Beijing Food and Drug Administration, said.
The administration is also conducting inspections of food enterprises in Beijing, including MUJI and 7-Eleven, and will recall any product that is imported from the affected areas, he said.
More than 13,000 online shops in China were suspected of selling food from these banned areas, according to the Shenzhen Market and Quality Supervision Commission, CCTV reported.
Law enforcement officers from the commission found nearly 20,000 packages of “Calbee” brand oatmeal, which is from Tochigi, at a company in Shenzhen, the report said.
Some supermarkets, including Japanese brand MUJI, are also suspected of violations, CCTV said.
MUJI said on Thursday that the two kinds of products, a cereal beverage and a muffin, are made in Fukui-ken and Osaka, which are not on the list of imports banned by China’s quality supervision authorities.
After years of banning Japan’s fish and agriculture, many countries might be willing to give the nation a second chance and import its goods. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011 and the resulting radiation in the region caused 54 countries and regions to implement restrictions on certain Japanese goods.
That number has shrunken to 33, with more nations likely to follow suit and lift the ban, the Japan Times reported Wednesday.
“We are looking forward to the lifting of the South Korean import ban,” Masao Atsumi, a sea-squirt farmer in Miyagi prefecture, told the Japan Times.
South Korea, which received about 70 percent of Japan’s sea squirt exports, imposed a ban on fish imports from eight prefectures in Japan in 2013.
The European Union began easing its own restrictions on Japanese imports in 2016. China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao, Singapore and Russia all continued to ban products from certain regions.
Lifting such restrictions could be a sign that Japan, still heavily burdened by the disaster six years later, was on the road to recovery. The nuclear meltdown left a zone of more than 300 miles surrounding the plant uninhabitable, causing the evacuation of 160,000 residents. Many of those residents were set to begin returning in the coming days.
Despite progress, serious problems have continued to pervade the region. Due to melted fuel debris, radiation in the nuclear plant recently reached the highest levels ever recorded inside, with experts calling it “unimaginable.” Radiation reached such elevated levels that the robots tasked with cleaning the reactor could not survive. Tokyo Electric Power Company, the group responsible for the cleanup, was still struggling to complete the $188 billion recovery process to decommission the plant, a project estimated to take decades.
The barren region left behind by the disaster also has a wild boar problem. Hundreds of the animals began invading towns surrounding the defunct plant after residents fled, scavenging for food and virtually taking over.