Spaces of uncertainty in the food supply after Fukushima
Nicolas Sternsdorff Cisterna
(Note: This post is based on research in progress, and I welcome feedback on how to proceed with this material.)
Tanaka-san (a pseudonym) is the head of one of the food coops based in Fukushima prefecture. We met at a consumer rights event, and I have visited him a few times to talk about the state of food safety in Japan. Coops are a strong force in Japanese food retailing — a little over 30 percent of Japanese households belong to one. There are many kinds of coops, and the one that he runs has strong positions on food politics: they are against Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP — a free trade agreement that could liberalize the Japanese agricultural sector), seek to reduce the use of additives and preservatives, and are concerned about the use of post-harvest pesticides in some imported crops. At the same time, they promote local products, and try as much as possible to support farmers and producers in Fukushima prefecture. To him, eating local does not mean Japanese products (kokusan), but to eat products from his prefecture. Moreover, as many coops do, they promoted their products as safe, reliable and healthy alternatives to the industrialized crops that are featured in supermarkets and the additive-heavy lunch boxes at convenience stores.
The accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant put Tanaka-san’s coop in a difficult position: how to continue sourcing safe food for their members in the face of radioactive pollution? One of the first things they did was to set stricter safety standards than those of the government for the amount of permissible pollution in their products. Immediately after the earthquake, the government raised the limit to 500 becquerels per kilo (bq/kg), which many consumer groups and food activists denounced as being dangerously high. They reasoned that the WHO, Ukraine and Belorussia have much lower standards (around 30-100bq/kg, depending on the product), so the government was potentially putting people in harm’s way. For Tanaka-san, the question was also one of balance: it was fine for him to set tight standards, but set them too low and he risked driving out of business the local farmers that supply his coop. They settled for 50bq/kg (1/10 of the government standard), but also at the bequest of their members, started selling a Western-Japan vegetable set. The reasoning was that those members who could live with the risk of acceptable levels of radiation in their food supply could support local farmers, while those who found the risks to be inadmissible could ask for vegetables grown far away in Western Japan.
I last saw Tanaka-san during the first week of March 2012, and asked him about safety standards now that the government is poised to reduce them to a maximum of 100bq/kg starting April 2012. He told me that they will continue upholding stricter standards than the government, but that at any rate, most crops these days test as 不検出 –Not Detected (N.D.), which means that no radiation was found.
The meaning of 不検出 however, is a contested space. There are now numerous testing centers in Fukushima prefecture and Tokyo where consumers, farmers and anyone willing to pay the fee can have their food measured for radiation. In addition, many food companies, distributors, retailers and even restaurants have purchased radiation testing machines. On the one hand, this gives consumers greater certainty that the food they are purchasing has been tested and shown to be within safe levels (especially since government testing has sometimes failed to catch products that exceeded the maximum levels). On the other, testing cannot offer total closure on the question of food safety.
It turns out that not all testing means the same thing. To begin with, different machines are capable of different levels of accuracy and detail. And secondly, the longer one leaves a sample inside the machine, the more accurate the reading becomes. For example, the machines at a testing center in Tokyo can detect radiation up to 10bq/kg in 20 minutes with one machine, and up to 20bq/kg in the same time with the other machine. If one leaves the food inside for less time, the machine can only detect higher concentrations. On the other end of the spectrum, leaving it inside for several hours can yield detailed results of up to 0.5bq/kg for some machines. Moreover, some of the people running these centers have told me that results vary even depending on who prepared the samples. Food is pushed into plastic containers that are then placed inside the machine, but technicians have told me that different people press the food with different strength, which can lead to different readings (if more product ends up in the same space, it can register more radiation that if less of it was pressed in).
N.D. is a measurement in flux that cannot conclusively determine whether a product is free of radiation. What it does is show that under the conditions in which a product was tested, it showed no radiation above a certain level. For example, one could use the machines to test whether something is below the current government level of 500bq/kg. On the upside, this means that the product does not need to sit inside the machine for long, freeing up the machine to do a lot of testing. On the other, it means that the product may in fact have radiation but since it showed as N.D., it can be anywhere under 500bq/kg.
For people looking to eat below a certain level, this might be an acceptable amount of indeterminacy. So long as the product is below their safety standard, then it should not be a problem. For people like Tanaka-san, he can offer an acceptable level of risk but cannot guarantee the absence of radiation. Under the present testing circumstances and the cost involved, Tanaka-san aims to offer products that test below 10bq/kg. There are consumers, however, for whom this level of indeterminacy is still unacceptable. In October of 2011, Vladimir Babenko from Belorussia gave a presentation in Tokyo on how to protect children from radiation, based on his work after the accident in Chernobyl. During the question and answer period, one person asked him what he thought was an acceptable level of radiation in food. Babenko turned the question back, and asked this woman:
“If I put a bottle of milk in front of you and tell you that it measures 200bq/kg, would you drink it?”
The woman and much of the audience loudly said no.
“Then, what would you like it to be?”
“I would like it to be zero,” she emphatically responded.
“Well then,” Babenko concluded, “then that is your safety zone. You need to decide for yourselves what your level of risk is.”
Even if something tests as N.D., this might still not be enough to convince some consumers of the safety of those products, especially some of the parents of young children that I have met at food safety events. For these parents, an absolute zero is the ideal. However, as one of the technicians at a food testing center in Fukushima city told me, “zero is just impossible,” by which he meant both that food in the affected areas might have trace amounts of radiation, and that the testing cannot offer that level of assurance. For those people, Tanaka-san offers the Western-Japan vegetable set, and I have heard from other consumers both in Fukushima prefecture and Tokyo that their rule of thumb is not to buy anything east of Nagoya or below Hokkaido.
One of the main themes I have seen since I begun fieldwork in Japan is a desire for determinacy among consumers. To be able to have a clear sense of what can be safely consumed, and what should be avoided. The circumstances, however, do not offer a black and white choice, but rather variations of grey. I suggest that the space between zero and N.D. is one of the places from where this indeterminacy emerges. This is by no means the only source of uncertainty, but it illustrates how these spaces of uncertainty after Fukushima affect food practices in Japan.
Nicolas Sternsdorff Cisterna is a PhD Candidate in social anthropology at Harvard University. He is currently conducting fieldwork in Japan on food safety after Fukushima.