TOKYO — Namiko Murata’s children are no longer getting their favorite salmon, saury and mackerel for dinner.
“I’m really paying attention to food because of the radiation problems,” said Murata, a Tokyo resident and mother of three. “We gave up eating fish even though my family likes it very much. Now, for protein, we drink three cups of soy milk a day.”
The detection of cobalt, iodine and cesium in the sea near the stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant north of Tokyo this week hurt fish sales in the world’s second-biggest seafood market. Shoppers ignored government reassurances that their food and water supplies were safe even as countries from Australia to the United States restricted food imports from Japan on fears of radioactive contamination.
Ryoko Mizumoto, a 27-year-old mother of two, said she stopped buying dried Shirasu fish and horse mackerel. “I gave up buying maritime products and started buying cheap meat,” she said while lining up to buy bottled water at one of Seven & I Holdings Co.’s Ito-Yokado stores in Tokyo. “I make hamburger steak to replace the fish.”
Japan has restricted shipments of milk, spinach and other vegetables from Fukushima and neighboring prefectures as radiation from the plant, damaged on March 11 by the country’s strongest earthquake on record, contaminated agricultural products.
The country’s biggest beverage makers, with plants running at full capacity, face renewed pressure to raise bottled-water production as shoppers cleared store shelves following news that radiation contaminated Tokyo’s water supply. A Lawson Inc. convenience store in the capital had a sign saying customers could only buy one bottle of water each. Its shelves for water, juice and tea were empty.
The health ministry tentatively set tolerable levels of radioactivity for each product. For fish, the level is set at 500 Becquerels per kilogram of radioactive cesium and 100 Becquerels per kilogram of uranium. Japan’s Food Safety Commission will assess the standards for possible revision as early as next week.
“We have not received any test results showing fish contaminated by more-than-acceptable levels of radioactivity,” Taiju Abe at the health ministry’s inspection and safety division said. “Prefectural governments are putting priority on testing vegetables as they are at the highest risk for contamination through the air and rain.”
Fishing in the northeastern prefectures of Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate has been halted since the earthquake and the ensuing tsunami that engulfed towns in northeastern Japan, damaged the Fukushima nuclear facility and shook buildings in Tokyo.
The suspension lowered the risk that “tainted fish will be in the market,” said Yasuo Sasaki, senior press counselor at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. “We don’t see fish at a high risk of contamination because of radiation dilution,”
Kazuko Nishihara said she isn’t convinced. “We don’t trust the government,” said the 41-year-old mother of two who left Tokyo for Hiroshima on March 18, where she said food supplies are safe. “It hasn’t disclosed enough information. When we get back to Tokyo, I won’t eat vegetables produced in the Kanto region and will only eat fish from the western part of Japan.”
The Kanto region encompasses Tokyo and six prefectures, and contains about one-third of Japan’s 127 million people.
Japan consumes about 9 million metric tons of seafood a year, second behind China’s more than 1.3 billion people, according to the website of the Sea Around Us Project, a collaboration between the University of British Columbia and the Pew Environment Group. It’s the world’s largest fish importer, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
“We are worrying about the marine radiation contamination problem,” said 35-year-old Takashi Inoue, who works at Shoei Suisan wholesaler at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market. “Unlike vegetables, the source of production is quite vague.”
Hiroyuki Metoki, a spokesman for Maruha Nichiro Holdings Inc. which sells prawns, crabs, octopus and shrimp from both Japan and overseas, said his company is getting more queries where its produce is from. While it doesn’t buy from areas near the damaged nuclear plant because all supplies have stopped, “it’s possible customers will avoid products processed or caught in those areas in the future,” he said.
“We may have to depend on products from other parts of Japan and imports,” he said. Because imported fish is expensive, people may “have to switch some portion of their fish consumption to something else, such as meat,” Metoki said.