TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan’s government ordered the suspension of all shipments of beef cattle from Fukushima prefecture on Tuesday after discovering that cattle fed rice straw contaminated with high levels of radioactive cesium had been shipped nationwide.
The discovery has added to consumer worries over food safety following contamination incidents for vegetables, tea, milk, seafood and water due to radiation leaks at the tsunami-hit nuclear plant in Fukushima, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo.
Although Fukushima accounts for just 3 percent of Japan’s beef, some of the affected meat was shipped to major supermarkets in and around Tokyo and served at kindergartens in Yamagata, northwest of Fukushima.
“Fukushima beef used to be sold at my local supermarket. Remembering that, I feel worried for young children and the elderly,” said Saori Yamada, a Tokyo resident.
“It’s one of those things that you don’t think about too much until it happens so close to you.”
More than 500 cattle that ate straw containing radioactive cesium have been shipped to other parts of Japan, initial inspections of the area’s farms have shown. The straw, which was left in rice paddies even as the Fukushima plant leaked radiation after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, contained cesium up to 500 times the levels considered safe.
The government is still conducting tests to determine whether the meat itself was contaminated. It will also ask all prefectures nationwide to look into whether their farms have used contaminated feed.
“The government is doing its utmost to grasp where the meat from affected cows has been shipped and, when such meat is found, is conducting tests,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said at a press conference.
He said the government will test all beef cattle from evacuation areas around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant for radiation as well as inspect all farms in the prefecture.
Tokyo Electric Power Co’s Fukushima plant continues to leak radiation more than four months after the disaster.
Farms will be allowed to ship beef if they clear safety standards in the government tests, Edano said.
The feed contamination news sparked selling in stocks of meat companies on Tuesday, with Nippon Meat Packers losing 4.2 percent to 1,082 yen and Itoham Foods dropping 3 percent to 321 yen.
Beef consumption in Japan had already been hit earlier this year by a fatal food poisoning case at a Korean-style barbecue restaurant chain that served shredded raw beef tainted with bacteria.
Experts said the health implications for consumers from cow feed contamination were not immediately clear.
“Although there are many studies regarding the effects of consuming radioactive food among humans, there are no substantial studies of this regarding cattle in Japan,” said Akira Otsuyama, associate professor at the University of Occupational and Environmental Health, Japan.
“Because cattle have a completely different digestive system and slower digestion than human beings, it is highly likely that they take in radioactive substances at a slower rate.”
The Fukushima government, which has already checked more than 33,000 beef cattle, plans to inspect all of the prefecture’s 4,000 cattle farms by August 3.
(Reporting by Rie Ishiguro and Yuko Takeo; Editing by Edwina Gibbs and Nathan Layne)
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