Japanese seafood unhinged by contamination fears

Twenty-four days have passed since the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and 500-mph tsunami rocked Japan to its very foundations. But while the country has responded with typical speed and efficiency to address some of its more pressing infrastructure problems, there’s increasing concern surrounding the radioactive contamination of its food and water supplies.

According to Japanese government officials, the perilously high levels of radioactivity found in the country’s seawater, particularly in those areas close to the stricken nuclear power plant in the Fukushima Prefecture, don’t pose an immediate risk to human health but there are long-term fears for local fisheries.

According to the latest figures from Statistics Japan, 104,485 metric tons of seafood was landed at Fukushima last year, which is a relatively small proportion of Japan’s total production of more than 5.5 million metric tons. And SeafoodSource readers should note Fukushima’s local government has said products from these fisheries are not being landed to markets.

However, there are serious implications for the country’s seafood exports as a whole, valued in 2010 at around JPY 200 billion (EUR 1.7 billion/USD 2.4 billion).

Heightened restrictions and a number of foodstuff bans have been implemented in key markets across Asia and North America, while here in the European Union, the European Commission has published Implementing Regulation 297/2011 imposing special conditions governing the import of feed and food originating in or consigned from Japan in light of the problems at Fukushima.

The Commission said products originating from the 12 affected prefectures may not contain levels of the radionuclides iodine-131, caesium-134 and caesium-137 above the maximum levels provided for in relevant European Regulations. An attestation from the Japanese authorities must accompany products, and border inspection staff will test a proportion of the imports for radioactive contamination.

Despite such stringent checks it’s not inconceivable that food of Japanese origin or provenance may be internationally stigmatized in the short-term. It has even been suggested that certain consumer markets might shy away from Japanese cuisine, although such steps seem ridiculously extreme.

Back in Japan, several reports have been published in the mainstream press saying seafood consumption has dropped as a direct result of contamination fears. Even sellers on the world famous Tsukiji fish market have apparently been trading seafood at greatly reduced prices in order to shift products.

There is much to suggest this is a classic case of media mischief making. As one international seafood trader told me, “You can’t change millenia of tradition and culture overnight, and if you’ve just been hit by the worst natural tragedy in living memory then eating the finest fish isn’t your top priority.”

It should be noted that at the time of writing, many restaurants and businesses in the worst hit regions were yet to reopen after the events of March 11, while power cuts were an ongoing problem. It also needs to be remembered that Japan is a net importer of seafood – as much as 75 percent is brought in from overseas and in the short-term many observers believe imports will increase substantially, presenting lucrative opportunities for overseas suppliers.

In the long-term, what’s much more likely is the combined fallout from the quake, tsunami and radioactive contamination will be the catalyst for a reduction in the number of Japanese seafood businesses in operation.

According to sources, many producers in certain sectors have been scratching a living for years and now that they’re presented with the notion of rebuilding their struggling ventures or getting out of the game altogether, the latter is perhaps the more appealing proposition.

As one leading shellfish supplier, who has sold into to Japan for decades, told me on his return from the country last week: “This is a market/life changer. The earthquake and dip in demand is one thing and anything can be rebuilt – of all the countries Japan is best placed to do that – but nuclear contamination; that’s the big issue.”


Want seafood news sent to your inbox?

You may unsubscribe from our mailing list at any time. Diversified Communications | 121 Free Street, Portland, ME 04101 | +1 207-842-5500