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All very confusing


April 26, 2012

Confusion reigns over beef limits / Agriculture ministry issues conflicting instructions on cesium standards

The agriculture ministry has caused confusion in the cattle industry by issuing conflicting instructions on the allowable limits of radioactive cesium in beef.

In December, the government announced that the maximum level of radioactive cesium in meat, fish and other food would be reduced from the provisional standards of 500 becquerels per kilogram to 100 becquerels per kilogram, saying some food may be exempted for a certain period of time.

The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry successfully sought a moratorium on imposing the new standards on beef until the end of September "in consideration of cattle producers," saying the limit is stricter than those in other countries.

The new standards came into force this month.

On March 9, the ministry instructed local governments to ask that the revised criteria be applied to beef before the end of the transitional period.

Local governments have been instructed to ask producers and others in the cattle industry to dispose of beef found to contain more than 100 becquerels per kilogram.

An official in the ministry's Meat and Egg Division said the instruction was issued due to consumer concerns.

"Beef is usually frozen for an extended period of time," the official said. "[The instruction] is meant to reduce the amount of beef that is processed and frozen before stricter standards are applied in autumn."

But the ministry's actions have confused cattle farmers. Farmers have asked local governments whether beef that fails to meet the revised criteria, but passes the provisional standards that are still in effect as part of the moratorium, can be sold.

Responding to the ministry's instruction, the Gunma prefectural government on April 5 asked a local farmer who had beef containing more than 100 becquerels per kilogram to voluntarily dispose of the meat instead of selling it.

Further complicating this matter, the ministry's Food Retail and Service Division on April 20 instructed distributors and retailers to refrain from imposing stricter standards than the government's revised criteria for food items.

An official at the division said he "was not aware" that a different office in the same ministry had issued an instruction for beef producers to follow the new criteria before the moratorium's end.

"The issuing of different instructions by the ministry is not a problem because our instruction is meant for consumers and retailers [instead of farmers]," the official added.

But three days later, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Michihiko Kano rejected the instruction and said, "The [April 20] instruction was not meant to oppose various efforts" to ensure food safety, such as the creation of stricter standards among retailers.

Hideaki Karaki, president of Kurashiki University of Science and the Arts, criticized the ministry's handling of the revised criteria.

"If the government changes rules soon after they are established, it will lose the trust of the public," the food expert said. "The ministry has been misled by a tendency to demand zero risk in food."

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