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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Japan’s 2011 Earthquake and Tsunami: Food and Agriculture Implications

Renée Johnson
Specialist in Agricultural Policy

The March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami in Japan caused widespread devastation that affected many of the country’s agricultural and fishery areas. The nuclear crisis that followed at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, and the subsequent detection of radioactive contamination of food produced near the disabled facility, further raised fears about the safety of Japan’s food production systems and its future food exports. Most reports acknowledge that Japan’s current production and supply shortages, along with rising food safety concerns and possible longer-term radiation threats to its food production, could limit Japan’s food exports while possibly increasing its need for food imports in the future. It is still not clear what effect, if any, Japan’s current food supply and demand situation will have on world farm commodity markets and food prices.

Following initial reports about possible radioactive contamination of foods, many countries increased their surveillance of food imports from Japan. In addition to the United States, others imposing heightened surveillance measures include the European Union, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, and most Asian nations, such as China and Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Korea, and Thailand, among others. Import restrictions vary by country but broadly cover milk and milk products, vegetables and fruit, and seafood and meat from those prefectures with a perceived risk of contamination, specifically Fukushima, Ibaraki, Tochigi, and Gunma. Several international organizations, including the various organizations of the United Nations, are closely monitoring global concerns about the safety of foods produced in Japan.

The Japanese government has taken steps to monitor and restrict, if necessary, the distribution of contaminated foods. Testing has been conducted nearly daily to detect possible radioactive contaminants on a wide range of plant and animal products, including fish, and also tap water in some of the coastal prefectures as well as in southern prefectures near the disabled Fukushima facility. In March 2011, Japan’s government made a series of announcements restricting the distribution and consumption of certain vegetables harvested in Fukushima, Ibaraki, Tochigi, and Gunma prefectures, and fresh raw milk produced in Fukushima prefecture. In April 2011, there were additional announcements regarding possible contaminated fish products, and also an announcement restricting spinach and leafy greens from Chiba prefecture.

In the United States, the two principal agencies that regulate U.S. food imports—the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)—have taken steps to address these concerns. Following Japan’s announcement that some foods had been contaminated by radiation, FDA issued an “Import Alert” for certain milk products and fresh vegetables produced or manufactured in the Japanese prefectures of Fukushima, Ibaraki, Tochigi, and Gunma. As of early April, FDA’s import alert does not cover Japanese seafood. Both FDA and USDA have announced that they are taking extra steps to better track U.S. food imports from Japan, working in conjunction with existing border inspectors at the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

Other U.S. agencies are also addressing concerns about whether radiation from Japan might affect food production in the United States or in U.S. territories in the Pacific. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is continuously monitoring the nation’s air and is regularly monitoring drinking water, milk, and precipitation for environmental radiation. To date, the results of EPA’s drinking water, precipitation, and milk sampling and air monitoring have shown detected radiation below levels that are a public-health concern.

Date of Report: April 13, 2011
Number of Pages: 15
Order Number: R41766
Price: $29.95

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