Do I Dare to Eat a Peach? Fukushima Citizens and Farmers Struggle with Food Safety

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Call it slipper security. To get clearance into the food radiation testing center at Fukushima Agricultural Technology Center, you have to change shoes three times. The first time, you get a black pair. The second time, after your heels are scanned by a Geiger counter and deemed radiation-free, you change into a pair of plastic house shoes emblazoned with a yellow nuclear symbol. And finally, before entering the testing lab itself, the indoor footwear urgency rating is kicked up a notch with a red nuclear label.

No precaution is too small when the eyes of the nation are on you. Since June 20, local government officials have been trying to make sure every kind of food grown, slaughtered or caught on a line in Fukushima prefecture has been brought to this laboratory to be tested for iodine 131 and cesium 137 and 134. All three radioactive elements were spewed into the atmosphere after the explosions at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in March, settling across the bucolic countryside surrounding the plant in a tasteless, odorless and potentially toxic dust. The exact amount and degree of the contamination is still unknown, but the radiation has shown up in local foods like shitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots, fish, beef, and spinach, among others.

Every day at the lab, government employees fan out to Fukushima farms to gather samples from the fields. In a clean, white room that smells like fresh cucumber and onion, workers in grey jumpsuits and latex gloves use long razor blades to mince everything from apples to beef to rice into a fine roux. The specimens are then ferried in small plastic containers into the lead bellies of the four-foot-tall analysis machines, where, after 33 minutes, the verdict comes in on an adjacent computer screen. Since June, as many as 5000 samples have been analyzed before shipping out to consumers around Japan.

Most have been well below the legal limit of 500 becquerels of radiation per kilogram. But is ‘most’ enough? In July, reports surfaced that beef shipped out of the Fukushima region and distributed widely around the nation contained cesium levels well above that limit. The cattle, which the local government says had been tested externally for radiation, were evidently given irradiated feed. Today, beef shipments from Fukushima, Miyagi, Iwate and Tochigi prefectures have been banned until new inspection plans for cattle are submitted and approved by Tokyo.

The Fukushima government initiated the testing program to prevent this kind of thing from happening. But with four machines, ten staff trained to use them and hundreds of miles of farmland to monitor, the task is overwhelming. (The center recently got the greenlight to purchase six more machines, which are made by the U.S. company Canberra, but is still waiting on their delivery.) Samples of local beef were being tested before the irradiated shipments were discovered, but radiation was not detected, says Kiichi Tairako, the general manager for the promotion of agricultural safety at the center.

Experts agree that the beef did not pose any health risk to those who accidentally ate an irradiated steak or two, but a regular diet of food tainted with iodine or cesium could increase a person’s risk of cancer. By halting beef shipments, one problem has been temporarily contained. (Selling fish caught in Fukushima’s waters is still banned.) Containing the fear that other food is also contaminated will not be as easy. “Some people are concerned that the beef will be a setback,” Tairako says. Some of the items the center has analyzed have been found to have high radiation levels exceeding the legal limit, but those have been in the minority.“I hope consumers will understand that,” he says.

They haven’t come around yet. Throughout Fukushima City, wooden crates of fragrant pink peaches wait, nestled in their individual wrapping, for customers to take them home. But sales of the region’s famous summer fruit are slipping, says the local chamber of commerce, despite the extra levels of testing that the both the city and the prefecture have done in the orchards this summer to ensure people they are safe to eat.

A newly formed non-profit in Fukushima City has started its own food testing. An anti-nuclear group in France donated a small analysis machine to the group, and now every day residents bring food from the market or their gardens in for a free test into the Citizens’ Radioactivity Monitoring Station (CRMS). Most of the tests show radiation levels well under the legal limit of 500 bequerels per kilo. But on a recent Saturday morning at CRMS headquarters, Hiroshi Hasegawa, a volunteer, points out a plastic container of shitake mushrooms that had measured 8850. The ground shitake sits on a bookshelf, sealed with a strip of yellow tape. The group is not sure what to do with it. “I was very nervous when I had to grind it,” Hasegawa says. “Don’t touch it.”

It’s the farmers, of course, who are hanging onto the bottom rung of all this uncertainty. And they’re not hanging on by much. Before May, all agricultural shipments out of the prefecture were prohibited. That ban has been lifted, but farmers’ products, if they test positive for cesium or iodine at the laboratory, could still be worthless. “I’m worried about my rice,” says Kuniei Kanno, a farmer in the town of Koriyama, south of Fukushima City. Though he lost his entire spring broccoli harvest under the ban, he went ahead and planted his rice paddies. His land does not have high radiation levels, but he still doesn’t know yet whether the rice it yields will be legal to sell or not.

It’s a gamble that hundreds of rice farmers throughout Fukushima have chosen to take. Like their peaches, Fukushima farmers are famours for their rice, and even this year electric green spouts of young rice paddies occupy every flat patch of land in the region. The government has promised the farmers will be compensated for their losses — along with fishermen and tens of thousands of evacuees — but Kanno, for one, has yet to see any money. Last week, Japan’s parliament approved a plan to help TEPCO tackle its enormous compensation bill to Japanese citizens that could run as high as $100 billion. Under the new law, the government will put $26 billion annually into a fund that will also receive contributions by TEPCO and Japan’s other nuclear power plants.

What is less clear is whether the money will come in time. Fukushima’s farmers will need to stay solvent until the trust between the people and land — a centuries-old bond that was broken this March, not by a natural disaster but a man-made one — is rebuilt test by test, harvest by harvest. “They say, ‘We’re going to pay, we’re going to pay, we’re going to pay,” Kanno says. “But they never say when.”