Prime Minister Naoto Kan placed an indefinite ban on spinach and another local vegetable produced by Fukushima and neighboring prefectures Monday after samples were found to be abnormally radioactive. He also suspended Fukushima milk.
The food ban, the first since the nuclear crisis began, is certain to alarm a public already anxious about radioactive fallout from the troubled reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano appealed for calm after the announcement.
“What I want people to understand is that the amount of (contamination) will not pose a risk to public health even though the figure exceeded government standards,” Edano said.
The announcement Saturday that radiation has popped up in milk and spinach made in areas near the Fukushima No. 1 power plant has cast a shadow over food safety.
The milk, collected Thursday in the town of Kawamata, Fukushima Prefecture, contained 1,510 becquerels of iodine per kilogram, about five times the new standard.
If one were to drink the contaminated milk for an entire year, the accumulated radiation would equal that of one CT scan, based on the average amount of milk consumed by a Japanese, Edano said.
The spinach, from Ibaraki Prefecture, contained 15,020 becquerels of iodine, about seven times the standard, but only 524 becquerels of cesium, or just slightly higher than the standard of 500 becquerels per kilogram.
According to the government, eating the contaminated spinach every day would be the same as absorbing one-fifth of the radiation from a CT scan.
Michikuni Shimo, visiting professor at Fujita Health University, said people should not worry about the radiation detected in the foods. Although it is better to wash vegetables before eating them, there is no immediate need to stop consuming these foods, Shimo said.
“The most troubling thing to me is the fear that’s out of proportion to the risk,” Dr. Henry Duval Royal, a radiologist at Washington University Medical School, told the Associated Press.
It is possible to cover vegetables, fruit and animal feed with plastic sheets or tarpaulins, according to the FDA. Livestock can be moved into barns.
How much radioactive material is permitted in foods?
The World Health Organization has established limits that serve as guidelines for governments. But there are no hard and fast rules in the United States, said George H. Pauli, a retired food safety official who spent 29 years at the FDA.
“You don’t want people to slide up to the limit,” he said. “It’s treated on a case-by-case basis when there’s a problem.”
Radioactive material in food is measured in becquerels, or Bq. The limit for iodine-131 is 55 Bq per kilogram for infant food and 300 Bq per kilogram for other foods regulated by the FDA. For meat and poultry, which are regulated by the Department of Agriculture, the limit is 55 Bq per kilogram. The limit for cesium-134 and cesium-137 for all foods is 370 Bq per kilogram.
In Japan, some milk was reported to contain 1,510 Bq of iodine-131 per kilogram.