Ecocentric

Could Japan’s Radioactive Beef Be a Good Thing?

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Calves that grew up in Fukushima prefecture are upped to an auction at the prefecture's livestock markets in Motomiya, Fukushima prefecture, in this photo dated July 12, 2011 (Photo: Yomiuri Shimbun / Reuters)


Over 950 pounds of beef contaminated with radioactive cesium above the legal limit has been distributed and eaten in at least eight prefectures across Japan, Tokyo city authorities have announced. The beef, which came from cows raised on a farm in Minamisoma in Fukushima prefecture, contained cesium at a level of 3,240 becquerels per kilogram — 6.5 times the legal limit set by the government.

How’d that happen? Pretty easily. Minamisoma is a small city located in the 20-30 kilometer agricultural belt around the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant. According to Japanese media, the farm that shipped the beef had been prohibited from selling meat immediately after the disaster, but restrictions eased up once it was determined that it was safe for residents of the city to stay. The prefectural government tested the outside of cattle in the area for radiation exposure, and the cows, too, were determined to be safe.

The problem arose when the farm reportedly fed the cows irradiated straw that had been stored outside. The agriculture ministry said it had expressly told farmers not to do so; whether the farm in question simply didn’t get the memo or  had no choice has not been determined, and perhaps never will be.

By now, anyway, it’s a moot point. Since the contaminated beef was first detected in Tokyo earlier this month, authorities have been scrambling to track down where the meat has been sold and bought. So far, according to the Daily Yomiuri, the beef has been traced to retail locations Tokyo, Hokkaido, Kanagawa, Chiba, and other prefectures. In some spots, the beef is still at its distributors or has been returned; in others, it has already been sold and eaten.

Because the legal limit of 500 becquerels per kilogram is based on eating a given food every day over a period of two years, experts have said that the meat in question does not pose a health threat to the people who ate it. “The level detected this time exceeds the legal limit, but eating a little bit shouldn’t pose danger to human health at all,” Ginji Endo, a professor at Osaka City University who studies irradiated food, told the Daily Yomiuri.

Still. Yuck. No doubt plenty of people in Japan opened up their fridges on hearing the news and tossed their steaks in the garbage, just to be sure. The incident underscores serious problems in the food testing system that has been in place since March, when anxiety about agricultural products in the disaster-struck prefecture of Fukushima reached a fever pitch. Food products are currently tested by local governments, where both testing equipment and staff are in short supply. Though no mass irradiation has been uncovered, in the past five months, spinach, mushrooms, bamboo, tea leaves, dairy and fish from the regions surrounding the plant have all been found to have radioactive contamination.

Which is why the beef with the beef — assuming the scientists are right and this is an unwelcome but not life-threatening incident — might turn out to be just the kick in the pants both local and central governments need to get their testing in some kind of real working order. It’s a minimal public health service that should be functional five months after the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, and clearly, it’s not. And that’s not because the people the local officials in Fukushima don’t care. They just don’t have the time, money or capacity to do it right.

That’s argument enough, but it’s also embarrassing for a country that is trying to prove to the world that their regulation systems can be trusted. The beef disclosures rankled U.S. officials in meetings in Tokyo on Tuesday, who criticized Tokyo for yet another slow response after they first found out that some unknown quantity of irradiated beef had made it to the marketplace. A senior official at the U.S. Meat Export Federation’s office in Tokyo told Bloomberg: “The government’s mishandling of the issue is deepening food-safety concerns.”

Several nations, including the U.S., slapped quick import restrictions on products coming from Japan in the early days of the Fukushima crisis. As worries had started eased, the strictest of those bans have been lifted and nations now require government certification of some or all food imports from Japan.

The beef brouhaha comes as Prime Minister Naoto Kan made his strongest statement yet on Japan abandoning nuclear power. At a press conference on Wednesday, Kan said: “Considering the huge risk of a nuclear accident, I have really felt that this technology cannot be controlled by conventional safety measures … Japan should aim for a society that does not depend on nuclear power generation.”

Krista Mahr is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @kristamahr. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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