Radioactive Tea in Japan

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    A report from FTV about radiation in tea, fish, and grass:

    The report shows radiation tests being conducted on ayu in Ibaraki prefecture. The fishing season for ayu will begin soon, and there are concerns that radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident may have contaminated rivers.

    The radiation has already created a major problem for livestock farms. Many farms throughout Tohoku and Kanto have discovered that their pastures contain grass with levels of radioactive cesium that exceed government safety standards. They will now have to spend a considerable amount of money buying tons of grass.

    Radioactive contamination of tea leaves has been found as far south as Kanagawa prefecture. However, there is considerable debate over how one should judge the health risk of radiation in tea. Up until recently, tea leaves were judged the same as any other food, with a cesium limit of 500 becquerels per kilogram. There are a couple problems with such a system:

    • Tea leaves had been tested before they were dried and processed. When dried and processed into aracha, the amount of radiation per kilogram increases.
    • Tea is a drink. People do not directly eat tea leaves or dried tea, yet the government safety standards treat it as if it was a vegetable. Even if tea leaves or dried and processed tea contain radiation over the safety limit for food, when it is brewed into tea, the drink itself would very likely be within government safety standards for radiation in drinks.

    Earlier this week, the Japanese government asked local governments throughout the Tohoku and Kanto regions to start conducting radiation tests on dried and processed tea leaves. However, because of the above mentioned issues, the governments of Shizuoka and Kanagawa voiced opposition to the measure. On May 19, Shizuoka Gov. Heita Kawakatsu declared that his prefecture would not comply with the request:

    “Checking (the radioactivity levels in) raw tea leaves and tea for drinking is enough,” said Kawakatsu.

    Aracha weighs about one-fifth normal tea due to water evaporation and tends to have a higher level of radioactive substances than raw green tea leaves.

    Alarmed by the recent detection of high levels of radioactive cesium in tea leaves, the ministry has ordered Tokyo and more than a dozen other prefectures in the Tohoku, Kanto and other regions to check Aracha, instructing them to ban distribution of Aracha if cesium tops the national provisional limit of 500 becquerels per kilogram.

    There has been a conflict of opinions within the central government over the issue, with the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare insisting that a uniform limit be strictly applied for Aracha while the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries arguing that the application of the limit should be flexible.

    “By confusing consumers, the central government could heighten public distrust in the state,” said Gov. Kawakatsu.

    Kanagawa, Saitama, and Ibaraki have followed Shizuoka’s example, and have rejected the request to conduct tests on aracha.

    Here’s a video clip of Gov. Kawakatsu drinking cups of Shizuoka tea and declaring to the press that it is perfectly safe to drink:

    It’s a good thing that the national government is trying to be strict about preventing contaminated food from reaching consumers, but it safety standards should be sensible. If tea is being sold for drinks and not as a vegetable, it makes sense for farmers and the governors of tea-producing prefectures to demand that the national government judge the tea using standards for drinks instead of standards for food.

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