Global Food Supply Still Affected by Japan’s Massive Earthquake

As we near the anniversary of the devastating Tohoku earthquake in Eastern Japan, aftereffects still linger. And among the most chilling aspects of the disaster are the nuclear reactors damaged by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami.  Varying levels of radioactivity have been found in vegetables and milk around the Daiichi nuclear plant in Fukushima—raising concerns about long-term consequences on the health of individuals exposed to excessive radiation.  

Academy member Tomomi Serizawa lives in central Japan, and says the concern is particularly alarming to parents because potential effects may not manifest until many years from now. “The most important thing is that children should not be exposed,” says Tomomi, who adds that those who can afford it are opting to buy groceries from stores that sell foods imported from other countries or areas of Japan. For the rest of the families, limiting exposure is a balancing act. “We can’t be too strict [about banning too many food staples] because we need to be paying attention to these things in very long terms.”

Although we are exposed to small amounts of radiation every day, consuming contaminated food increases the health risks associated with radiation exposure. Radioactive iodine is the main contaminant in Japan and concentrations in some food samples have been detected at levels above the country’s regulatory limits.

If ingested, radioactive iodine can accumulate in the body, particularly the thyroid gland, increasing the risk of thyroid cancer, especially in children. Radiation sickness can also cause other types of cancer, and even death, depending on the amount absorbed by the body, the type, the route of exposure, and the length of exposure.

Not all foods produced or harvested in Japan are affected, and food that was dispatched or packaged before the earthquake is thought to be safe. But local authorities—and those around the world—have implemented more rigorous food control measures. Some countries have suspended food imports from Japan all together. In the U.S., the Federal Drug Administration’s regular oversight of Japanese imports has been augmented by an additional radiation screening and a restriction of these products:

  • Tea leaves from Ibaraki, Tochigi, Gunma, Kanagawa and Chiba prefectures, and dace, ayu, and cherry salmon (yamame) from Fukushima.
  • Spinach, lettuce, celery, cress, endive, escarole, chard, collards and other head-type leafy vegetables from the Fukushima prefecture.
  • Turnips and other non-head type leafy vegetables, as well as broccoli, cauliflower, flower head brassicas (i.e. broccoli and cauliflower), mushrooms bamboo shoots, and Ostrich fern from the Fukushima prefecture.
  • Sand lance from Fukushima prefecture
  • Milk from the Fukushima and Ibaraki prefectures.
  • Spinach and kakina from the Fukushima and Ibaraki prefectures.

Whether you’re in Japan or another area of the world, it’s important to understand what actions to take during the early stages of a disaster involving increased radiation levels and to be vigilant about your food sources. In case of an emergency:

  • Close the ventilation of greenhouses to protect growing vegetables
  • Bring livestock in from pastures
  • Harvest any ripe crops
  • Avoid consuming locally produced milk or vegetables
  • Avoid slaughtering animals
  • Avoid consuming and harvesting aquatic animals and plants (including fish, shellfish, and algae)
  • Avoid hunting or gathering mushrooms or other wild foods.

Update 2/20/2012: Japan's Radiation Council approved a proposal for far stricter limits on radioactive cesium found in food

Update 2/22/2012: Nuclear fears pummeled seafood trade between Korea and Japan

Update 3/8/2012: Japan tightens radiation limits on meat products

Food & Nutrition Magazine
Food & Nutrition Magazine publishes articles on food and diet trends, highlights of nutrition research and resources, updates on public health issues and policy initiatives related to nutrition, and explorations of the cultural and social factors that shape Americans’ diets and health.