Consumers suddenly rushing back to pariah produce

April 14th, 2011 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

On Tuesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano took part in a bazaar in front of the JR Shimbashi Station in Tokyo that featured produce from Iwaki in Fukushima Prefecture. Iwaki is just outside the evacuation perimeter set by the government, and Edano assured shoppers at the bazaar that the food from Iwaki and other Fukushima farms “that are sold in markets are perfectly safe.” To prove it he ate some strawberries and tomatoes.

Edano’s reassurances recalled a similar stunt carried out by the current prime minister, Naoto Kan, in 1996 when he was the health minister during a food-poisoning outbreak that was blamed on daikon radish sprouts. In order to reassure consumers that the sprouts were in fact safe, Kan ate a bowl of them on TV. The implication is that rumors about food safety often outrun the facts, and the government has little recourse except to offer visual proof that the fear of tainted food is unsubstantiated. Usually, however, it’s the government that exacerbated the rumors in the first place.

During the early weeks of the Fukushima crisis, as it became clear that radiation was leaking from the crippled reactors at higher levels than previously reported, the government restricted the sale of some vegetables from Fukushima and Ibaraki Prefectures that were found to have slightly higher than legally acceptable levels of radioactivity. What wasn’t openly acknowledged at the time was that these levels had been implemented years before in response to the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster as a means of keeping out imports of foreign food products that might have been contaminated. The standards were thus much more cautious than they were in other countries.

The government was legally bound to ban the local vegetables from markets even if they were considered safe. Consumers didn’t know this and avoided all produce, milk and fish from the affected areas, as well as from farms in the Kanto area. Wholesalers, having learned from past experience how such rumors operate, covered their bets by just refusing to deal with the stuff.

Farmers from Tohoku and Kanto rightly blamed the government for the steep drop in sales and acted on their own, setting up farmers markets in parking lots throughout the Kanto Plain and in Tokyo and Yokohama. By this point, consumers had gotten the word, mainly through the media who, realizing their own role in the rumor-mongering, quickly set things to right. Now the government is trying to make amends in a more practical way. Almost all the ministries are buying produce from the affected areas for their own cafeterias. So-called antenna shops in Tokyo that sell meibutsu (famous products) from specific prefectures have seen a huge jump in business in the past week. The wholesale produce market in Adachi Ward, Tokyo, held a special bazaar this week featuring fruits and vegetables from Tohoku and everything sold out in two hours. Suddenly, even supermarkets are trumpeting the fact that they’re carrying Tohoku produce which, two weeks ago, they couldn’t even give away because of the place where it was grown.

Rumors work in mysterious ways.

(Japan Agriculture will hold its own bazaar of food from Tohoku and Kanto on the 4th floor of the JA Building in Otemachi on Apr. 14 from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.)

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