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New norms on cesium

 February 18, 2012
New radiation limits confuse farmers

Farmers in Fukushima Prefecture have had differing reactions to the new limits introduced by the health ministry on radioactive cesium in food.

"I wonder whether the radioactive cesium level will be lower than the new limits even if I grow rice after decontamination," Takayoshi Sakurai said with a sigh. "I feel the government has introduced the new limits to keep Fukushima from distributing food."

Sakurai, 65, has five hectares of paddy fields in Minami-Soma, which has been forced to give up rice planting this year.

He said he would rather abandon farming if he has to grow rice without a guarantee that it will be sold.

On the other hand, Zenichiro Endo, 65, a dairy farmer with 43 milk cows in Koriyama, was more positive.

"Tighter restrictions are good because children drink a lot of milk," he said. "Consumers won't drink milk if it's not safe and tasty. It is important to address their concerns [about radioactive cesium] first."

The Radiation Council said opinions from people other than consumers should be taken into consideration.

It called on the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry to listen to what farmers and other food producers have to say about suspensions of food shipments to avoid being swayed by damaging comments from other sources.

The health ministry holds frequent talks with the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry before it revises radiation limits.

As a result, the new limits were adopted for food items that are eaten after being soaked in water, such as dried shiitake mushrooms. The new limits for rice and beef will be delayed.

Ministry sets stricter cesium limits for food

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry held firm to its original proposal for new, tougher limits on radioactive cesium in food. However, the science ministry's Radiation Council has said the new regulatory limits for milk and baby food items are too strict.

Despite the criticism, the council approved new limits that are far tougher than the current provisional limits. The health ministry plans to apply the new limits in accordance with its original proposal for food, drinking water, milk, and baby foods starting in April, but some observers voiced concerns they could cause trouble for food producers and inspection arrangements.

According to the health ministry's proposal approved Thursday by the Radiation Council of the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, the new limits are set at 100 becquerels per kilogram for regular food items, 50 becquerels for milk and baby food items, and 10 becquerels for drinking water.

The council is an advisory panel of the science ministry.

"We didn't mean to drag out the talks to annoy [the health ministry], but we just wanted [the ministry] to think deeply about why we took such a long period of time," said Otsura Niwa, chairman of the Radiation Council and professor emeritus of Kyoto University.

During a council meeting held Thursday morning at the science ministry building, Niwa requested the health ministry give thoughtful consideration to the application of the new limits.

The new limits are extremely strict and are set between one-twentieth and a quarter of the present provisional limits.

In six council meetings held since December, many council members stated the health ministry's proposed limits were too strict.

"Children's safety can be secured even if the limits are set at 100 becquerels, which is the same level for general food items. It's not necessary to set stricter limits for only baby food items and milk at half of this figure," a council member said during one of the meetings. Another member said, "The basic premises for calculating the limits are too strict."

Another issue council members found problematic during their discussions with the health ministry was that they believed calculation methods were not realistic.

According to the health ministry's original proposal, the limits were calculated based on an assumption that 50 percent of distributed food items are contaminated. However, council members have said this assumption is too extreme.

As the ministry assessed the ratio of contaminated food with radiation doses 1.5 times to five times higher than ratios found in Europe or the United States, the new cesium limits for general food have become far stricter.

"I wonder [the limits were calculated] based on a fictitious scenario," a council member said.


Ministry's strong intent

A senior health ministry official said, "We aimed to set standards that protect a large majority of people, even in a case when multiple worst case [scenarios] are combined."

Behind the ministry's decision is the strong will of health minister Yoko Komiyama, who has enthusiastically tackled child-rearing issues since before the Democratic Party of Japan became the ruling party.

Komiyama backed the ministry's bureaucrats from the beginning, saying, "In order to feel safer, we'd like to set stricter limits for baby food items."

Consequently, the category for baby foods was newly established as there was no such category when the government initially determined the provisional limits.

However, Radiation Council experts, who seriously regard scientific grounds and impact on society, thought that establishing the new category was an unnecessary effort.

One opinion expressed during the council meetings stated that since the limit for general food items was sufficient, the safety standards for baby food items should not be a separate category.

However, the health ministry did not yield, and an agreement between the ministry officials and council members seemed a distant possibility.

"How food is eaten varies greatly among individuals, and it's impossible to measure and look after the actual exposure of each person. So, we think we must protect the public's health by setting a rational standard under the strictest assumptions. We have a different view from the report presented by the Radiation Council," a senior health ministry official said.


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