TOKYO — A growing scandal over radioactive meat shipped and consumed across the country is threatening to revive global concerns about the safety of food from Japan.
The Tokyo city government says about 960 pounds of beef from a farm about 18 miles from damaged nuclear reactors in northeast Japan were shipped to at least 12 provinces. The beef reached consumers in homes and restaurants in Tokyo, Osaka and as far away as the northern island of Hokkaido.
The Fukushima provincial government says the problems began with a farmer who failed to cover his straw or move it indoors, as the agricultural ministry ordered on March 25 after the explosions at the Fukushima reactors released radiation into the air.
Radioactive cesium, spewing from the reactors, landed in the straw, which the farmer then fed to cattle.
The Japanese government on Sunday prepared to suspend cattle shipments from Fukushima.
“We may need to increase our response by checking the distribution of contaminated straw,” said Senior Vice Health Minister Kohei Otsuka.
The cesium was detected July 8 at a slaughterhouse in of Tokyo in some of the 11 cows it received from the farm in Fukushima.
That meat wasn’t distributed. But the slaughterhouse realized it had already taken another six cows from the same farm in May and June and had shipped them to retailers and consumers, without knowing about their contamination.
Government inspectors later found cesium levels 25 times the acceptable limit in straw in the farmer’s rice field and five times legal levels in beef tracked to a Tokyo market and then distributed around Japan. Officials tracked the beef using codes on packages.
The Asahi newspaper reported that large amounts of the meat were consumed in Tokyo and some of its western surburbs.
Officials also found meat with excessive levels of cesium in refrigerators in homes in western and northern Japan.
Fukushima supplies about three percent of Japan’s meat and much larger amounts of rice and vegetables. Shipments of liver and intestines, which are popular items across Asia, do not legally require the same tracking details as meat, and little is known about the possible contamination of these items.
Kyodo News quoted Charles Casto, deputy regional administrator at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, as saying that the tainted beef had been discovered despite Tokyo’s assurances that food exports were safe.
Mr. Casto was in Tokyo attending a bilateral meeting on the Fukushima nuclear crisis. Japanese officials said Mr. Casto called on the Japanese government to share information in a timely manner, since U.S. citizens also reside in Japan.
Susumu Harada, senior director at the U.S. Meat Export Federation’s Tokyo office, said last week, “The government’s mishandling of the issue is deepening food-safety concerns.”
Fukushima government officials have told local reporters that they plan to check all 260 ranches in the government-designated danger zone around the reactors to find out if they gave contaminated feed to their cattle. Fukushima farmers send about 33,000 cows to slaughterhouses, mostly in Tokyo, for distribution nationwide.
Officials are especially worried about meat already consumed over the past four months,and whether farmers will tell the truth about what they fed their cattle. Some farmers might have sold tainted cattle to avoid financial losses or because they lacked the means to test for contamination on their own.
The Fukushima government, already short of staff and resources, will be hard-pressed to test every single animal and source of feed in the province.
Agriculture Minister Michihiko Kano promised on July 12 that his ministry will help Fukushima officials conduct tests, but some question how they can screen every single item in Fukushima and other provinces.