Rice Imports from Fukushima – A Cause for Concern?
I usually do not blog about anything else here apart from my travels and my food ventures, be it those I’d tried to eat or those I’d tried to cook. However, something in the recent news made me shiver in my bones, as it concerns two countries which I’m very closely related to, i.e Singapore where I am born, bred and call home, and Japan which I’d been to couple of times and increasingly growing fond of and attached to. Singapore will be importing rice from Fukushima, Japan very soon, following a complete lift of import restrictions on Japanese food items to the small island state since the Fukushima catastrophe in 2011. It didn’t occur to me that we are going to be getting rice from Fukushima until recent news dating just two days back in our local newspapers. Should this be of any concern, especially when many Singaporeans like me, are particularly fond of Japanese cuisine?
Our government has recently given the green light for rice cultivated in Fukushima to be imported into Singapore, after a meeting between Singapore’s PM Lee Hsien Loong and Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe just two months ago in late May 2014. Fukushima, as many of us would recall, was where the nuclear leakage catastrophe following a hit by a tsunami occurred just a couple of years back. I vividly remember the incident as I was just back from Osaka just a couple of days before the earthquake struck, narrowly escaping the mayhem and panic which brought down the whole nation. The shinkansen was down for quite a while, following a series of stringent power rationing exercise throughout the country. Since then, acres upon acres of farmland has been contaminated by caesium amidst other toxic radioactive substances leaching into the very soil which the farm produce from Fukushima and neighbouring regions are grown. This brought about a wave of concern within Japan itself, as local consumers shunned away from farm produce and seafood catch from around that area. Singapore brings in almost all of what we eat. Being so small, we rely heavily on imports, be it fruits from the neighbouring Malaysia or Indonesia, and milk from Australia and New Zealand to frozen chicken as far away as Brazil. It is a good thing really, to diversify our sources, so that we would not become overtly dependent on any one. However, apart from the country of origin stipulated on the packaging, very little is told about the specific locality or provenance of the particular food item. So, the frozen chicken I mentioned, would just say that it is from Brazil and pretty much nothing else. Perhaps other details would be deemed trivial and unnecessary. The practice of product locality labelling in Japan however seems far more thorough and rigorous. In Japan, it seems to be a very common practice to provide more precise labelling of their produce, down to the prefecture from which a particular fruit was grown, like apples from Aomori or mangoes from Miyazaki, and sometimes pinpointed to the specific district, like matcha (green tea) from Uji in southern Kyoto. It has become an integrated part of their local consumerism culture it seems, to do so. And that is only because the local farmers take pride in what they had harvested and the fishermen felt that by sharing their catch, they are sharing their joy with their fellow countrymen. Imagine, a selection of daikon (white radish) or ichigo (strawberries) from different prefectures all over Japan being placed side by side in the local supermarkets when they are in season, consumers soon become very savvy in comparing what is good from where. Indirectly, this serves as a form of competition between local farmers, mostly constructive, to better their skills, be it in cultivation, harvesting, right down to the means and modes of transportation. As such, the level of discernment and discretion is very high in Japan, pushing the farmers to excel further, an ideology perpetuated in not just farming but the Japanese society in its entirety. But for the farmers of Fukushima, this blessing seemed to have turned into a curse.
Now as all of us would still vividly recall, Fukushima’s coastal regions, including the ill-fated nuclear power station was completely devastated after being hit by a tsunami created by an earthquake within the cores of the Pacific. Farmlands were flooded by the brackish seawater, rendering a large part of it no longer arable. Now those are the lucky ones in fact. For those nearby farmlands who are “saved” from being completely nullified by the merciless ocean currents, their soil becomes contaminated with radioactivity seeping deep down the arable strata. The farmers live in peril really, as when many others have chosen or forced to flee the place they’d grown up and lived in since they are born, many Fukushima farmers chose to stay behind to tend the farmlands passed down through the generations by their ancestors. For many of them, farming is their life and the only thing they know how to do.
But produce from Fukushima has made it poorly on the shelves on local Japanese supermarkets. Despite being markedly cheaper than similar produce from other prefectures, local Japanese generally shun away from these, remaining unmoved by the attractive and sometimes ridiculously low prices they are attempted to be sold for. From what we saw in Tokyo during our recent most trip, even neighbouring prefectures like Tochigi and Ibaraki are implicated somewhat, with their apples and strawberries, as well as vegetables sold at lower prices compared to those from other prefectures. Prima facie, we were elated by how affordable Japanese foodstuff have become, but it was only after some serious thought did we reach some grave realisation to how serious the issue actually is.
Thing is, is rice from Fukushima really safe? Is the 100 Bq/kg “safety limit” really “safe”? Apparently it is not to some as stated HERE. Some sources as stated HERE even went on to exclaim that even 10-30 Bq/kg is hazardous, especially to young children, let alone the permitted 100 Bq/kg. Fact is, the rice is so contaminated that the locals won’t even eat it. The farmers sell it but they won’t even dare eat it themselves. The frustrating voices of the local Fukushima farmers are echoed loudly during a negotiation with government officials last year. Really a battle between keeping themselves fed and alive, against living each day with dignity as a fellow human with a clear conscience. PLEASE WATCH THE VIDEO OF THE NEGOTIATION HERE. Just look at how angry and despaired the Japanese farmers from Fukushima were as they pleaded and argued with the Japanese authorities from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to formally address the contaminated farmland issue, and not merely dismiss it as being a “harmful rumour”.
Looking at the situation faced by the Fukushima farmers against the Japanese government, I can’t help but draw parallelism from the sinister acts of dolphin mass hunting and massacre in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture. This has been explicitly documented in THE COVE. Every year, thousands of dolphins migrating through the coastal regions of the Sea of Japan are illegally herded into a hidden lagoon, only to meet their doom as they were being ambushed and brutally killed. The dolphin meat was then peddled as highly priced whale meat in the local supermarkets. Some even went on to supply free dolphin meat to local elementary schools where lunch is provided as an obligatory component of the curriculum, in attempt to convince the children that dolphin meat is tasty, in hope that they would go back to coax their parents into buying it at the local supermarkets. Despite the justifications made by the local fishermen at Taiji on their acts of dolphin killing to be part of a long-withstanding Japanese tradition, and the local fishery authorities to market it fervently to the local supermarkets with claims that dolphin meat is safe for consumption, the local fishermen refuse to feed their own children with dolphin meat, nor would they eat it themselves. For they know only too well, from the photographs and video footages to the consequences of mercury poisoning causing the Minamata disease remains vivid in their minds. In the 1950s, illegal dumping of industrial waste containing high levels of mercury and other heavy metals was largely unchecked. This was especially so for the chemical plants around the Minamata Bay region in Kumamoto prefecture. As such an outbreak of Minamata disease occurred, especially amongst newborns rendering them paralysed physically and neurologically. Dolphins, as a tertiary consumer with no natural predators lie at the end of a ecological food chain. As such, huge quantities of heavy metals accumulate in their bodies through bio-amplification which accumulates along the food chain from the smallest phytoplankton, and progressively up to the fish which the dolphins feed on. Will we consume dolphin meat, in turn allowing the heavy metals like mercury in our bodies? Likewise, should we, well knowing the risks of caesium contamination involved, allow Japanese rice from Fukushima to be imported?
300kg may not seem a lot. But should this come through and be wrongly read and raved as a “successful and smooth” transition to introduce Japanese rice from Fukushima into Singapore, what would be next? 3 tonnes of rice from Fukushima? 30 tonnes of rice from Fukushima? Fresh produce like vegetables and fruit from Fukushima, which the Japanese locals reject and condemn through not buying and consuming themselves? What exactly next?
I understand from a report by TR review that according to an official from “Zen-Noh” (The National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations, which is a major wholesaler of Japanese agricultural products, “the provenance (of the Fukushima rice) will be marked and it will not be mixed with other produce”. This begs my second question. Will the rice be made solely for consumer retail? Or would it be also available for business establishments like Japanese restaurants and sushi delis? My primary concern is, that our local enterprises, being tempted by the relative low prices of the Fukushima rice offers, may be tempted or even convinced into using it to replace other Japanese rice varieties from other prefectures which they had been using. And I’m afraid that the consumers would have no say at all to whatever they would be eating from these Japanese restaurants should this happen. Rice, like it is for many other Asian ethnicities and countries, is a staple for the Japanese. It is used and served in most if not all Japanese meals, from the more elaborated Kiseki course, to an onigiri to-go. So in short, rice affects us all.
I am not asking for a complete embargo of Japanese produce from Fukushima. It is within the jurisdictional control of our authorities to approve and sanction the imports from the vicinity of the nuclear disaster, which by current regulatory standards, is deemed “satisfactory” by our AVA. But by allowing this to happen, we are the first country in the whole wide world to allow produce grown from the contaminated soils of Fukushima to reach our shores, and to be consumed by our own people. Singapore, as the first nation to allow Fukushima exported produce, could possibly be heavily used and quoted by Zen-Noh during their negotiations with other countries to justify the safety of Fukushima growth farm produce. Logically, our government shoulders the responsibility of its people, to safeguard the interest and safety of its own citizens to keep them away from harm, as we had empowered them to do so by bringing them into office. However, should Singapore also shoulder the responsibility to stand and bear testament, and be used by the Japanese trade and economy authorities as part of their marketing strategies to convince other nations and lobby for their produce contaminated by radioactivity to be exported there, well knowing that even their own people are not eating it? “For even a “strict” country with tough laws and regulations like Singapore is allowing our products to be imported. That is the best proof that our products are safe!” I gather this would be what it would likely to sound. But are they really safe?
As such, I ask for the following to be implemented.
(1) I ask for total and complete transparency of the Fukushima rice and other farm produce to be thoroughly monitored. Rice from Fukushima sold in supermarkets MUST be well labelled clearly in ENGLISH on the packaging. There should also be clear signage on the shelves where the Fukushima products are be displayed and stored, away from the other products, especially those of similar nature, with similar packaging.
(2) I ask that the rice to be made available ONLY for public and open retail purchase. By that, I mean that F&B enterprises like restaurants, sushi delis as well as business enterprises to be completely disallowed from purchasing, cooking and serving Fukushima rice and farmland produce in their establishments.
(3) Should a complete ban on food items from Fukushima for local F&B enterprises be deemed non-feasible, I ask that AVA and/or HSA impose a strict implementation of signages to be written clearly in ENGLISH, in no uncertain or ambiguous terms to be placed at prominent locations within these F&B enterprises, AND on their menus to inform the public on their usage and incorporation of Fukushima farm produce in the food they serve. I ask that AVA and/or HSA to regulate and monitor closely these enterprises to ensure that they comply by the strict implementation. As much as these F&B enterprises have the right to serve their customers with foodstuff contaminated with radioactive substances which are deemed “safe” under AVA standards, the customers should also have the right to choose to be served and eat these foods or not.
(4) I ask that AVA and/or HSA conduct very thorough testing for ALL imports from Fukushima and not just through mere sampling.
We may not be able to stop the import of these foodstuff which are laced with radioactivity from Fukushima into Singapore, but it is our prerogative and responsibility to discern what is unsafe and keep them away from our children. READ ALL FOOD LABELS CLEARLY, making sure that you fully understand what has been explicated. WHEN IN DOUBT, DO NOT BUY. Do not be tempted to purchase so as to “try and see”. The effects of radioactivity may not be apparent and immediate. Heavy metal intoxication occurs slowly but surely. In the case for radiation, it may also be likewise.
Do inform and warn family and friends on the potential dangers and underlying risks involved in the consumption of Japanese produce, particularly those imported from Fukushima and nearby areas. As much as we do not wish to be discriminatory, it is to the best of the interest and health of our loved ones which we have to safeguard and protect.
STAY SAFE, EAT SAFE
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