March 22, 2011

WHO Updates Assessment Of Food Safety Situation In Japan

Despite its assessment on Monday that Japan's food supplies were safe to eat, the World Health Organization (WHO) later said the detection of radiation in some food in Japan was a more serious problem than it had expected.

After Monday's announcement by the WHO, Chinese and South Korean officials said they would tighten checks on Japanese food imports for contamination due to radioactivity leaked out by the Fukushima nuclear power plant in disaster-stricken Japan.

China's Xinhua state news agency said the country will monitor food imported from Japan, while South Korea will widen its inspections to dried agricultural and processed food from fresh agricultural produce.

"Japan's nuclear leak has sounded an alarm bell for the international community about the safety of nuclear energy," Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said in a speech on Monday, which can be found on his ministry's website (www.mfa.gov.cn).

While the WHO said there was no evidence of contaminated food spreading internationally, officials in Ibaraki and Fukushima prefectures in Japan -- the areas closest to the severely-damaged power plant -- found higher than normal levels of iodine in spinach and milk samples.

Peter Cordingley, a spokesman for WHO's regional office for the Western Pacific, told Reuters by phone on Monday that "quite clearly it's a serious situation."

"It's a lot more serious than anybody thought in the early days when we thought that this kind of problem can be limited to 20 to 30 kilometers," said Cordingley.

Currently, however, there is no evidence of contaminated food from the Fukushima prefecture reaching other countries, he added. "We can't make any link between Daiichi and the export market. But it's safe to suppose that some contaminated produce got out of the contamination zone."

It was difficult to know for sure whether radioactive material found in some Japanese food originated from the Daiichi plant, Cordingley cautioned.

Peter Ben Embarek, a food safety expert at Beijing-based WHO offices, said there could be more cases of contamination in Japan, but there shouldn't be much concern about it reaching other countries.

"There is no sign that a lot of Japanese contaminated food products will find its way into the international market because of the current efforts to monitor what's going on there," he told Reuters.

Japanese officials have stopped shipments of raw milk from Fukushima prefecture and told four other prefectures near the plant to not ship out any spinach.

The WHO states that leafy green vegetables, milk, egg and meat products are among the biggest concerns for possible contamination.

Radioactively-contaminated food ingestion can increase the risks of certain cancers, said Embarek. If radioactive iodine is ingested, it can cause damage to the thyroid. He said while the risk for people outside Japan eating Japanese food was low, those within Japan should avoid eating fresh food produced in and around the power plants.

The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that radiation was found in some Japanese milk and vegetables, and the levels were "significantly higher" than levels Japan allows for consumption. Japanese authorities are expected to decide on a comprehensive plan on Tuesday to limit food shipments from the affected zones.

"They're going to have to take some decisions quickly in Japan to shut down and stop food being used completely from zones which they feel might be affected," Gregory Hartl told The Associated Press.

"Repeated consumption of certain products is going to intensify risks, as opposed to radiation in the air that happens once and then the first time it rains there's no longer radiation in the air," he said.

Actual health risks depend on the type of food and soil affected, and the amount consumed, said Hartl. But delays in keeping contaminated food from reaching consumers could pose serious health risks, he warned.

"A week ago we were more concerned about purely the radiation leakages and possible explosion of the nuclear facility itself, but now other issues are getting more attention including the food safety issue," Hartl noted.

Japan exports around 220,000 tons of fruits, vegetables, dairy products and seafood annually, according to the WHO. The main markets for Japanese food products are Hong Kong, United States and China.

Taiwan's Atomic Energy Council found a small amount of radiation in a shipment of broad beans from southern Japan during inspections over the weekend, but the level detected was within limits. However, Taiwan plans to destroy the beans for safety concerns.

Some Hong Kong hotel chains have suspended imports of food from Japan as a precautionary measure. And a restaurant chain in Malaysia halted imports of raw food from Japan over fears of contamination.

"Customers are worried and they keep calling us, but what can we do? All we can say is we don't know when we can resume sales," said Vinod Kumar, director of Rahul Trading Corp.

The United States and other countries are also stepping up their inspections of Japanese imports.

Many know how much of a risk radioactive contamination poses. The 1986 Chernobyl disaster made that clear. Thousands of cases of thyroid cancer were blamed on the Soviet Union's failure to stop children in the region from drinking milk contaminated with radioactive iodine, and failure to also give a thyroid-protecting drug -- potassium iodide.

Japan's damaged reactors haven't leaked nearly as much radiation as Chernobyl, and aren't expected to, so the risks are not as dramatic. And this time, people are being forewarned, food is being inspected and there's potassium iodide available in areas where the risk is highest.

While the WHO is telling Japan to act quickly to ensure that no contaminated food is sold, international scientists say risk from food in Japan so far is low, especially outside the disaster area -- and the US is particularly safe because it imports very little food from Japan.

Besides, there was radiation in food well before Japan's earthquake and tsunami.

"The world is covered in cesium-137 from the atomic weapons tests of the `50s and `60s," nuclear physicist Patrick Regan, of the University of Surrey in England, told The Associated Press.

"There is radioactivity in all food. It's really a matter of saying how much," agrees University of New Mexico radiologist Dr. Fred Mettler, who studied the health effects of the Chernobyl disaster.


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