Japan on Tuesday suspended cattle shipments from Fukushima prefecture on fears of radiation-tainted beef in the country’s meat distribution chain, four months after a nuclear accident in the region.
Tokyo told Fukushima Governor Yuhei Sato to “halt shipments of all cattle in Fukushima to meat-packing factories,” until the safety of the meat can be confirmed, chief government spokesman Yukio Edano told reporters.
Around 650 beef cattle, including more than 500 from Fukushima alone, are thought to have been contaminated with radioactive caesium from hay they were fed before being sent to meat processing facilities across Japan since late March.
Beef from the cattle was shipped to most of Japan’s 47 prefectures and some of the meat is thought to have already been consumed.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan on Tuesday apologised before parliament for the issue. “I feel the responsibility for not being able to prevent this from happening and I am very sorry,” he said.
Hay stored outside is thought to have been contaminated by radioactive materials spewed by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in the weeks after it was hit by reactor meltdowns following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
In the latest food scare associated with the disaster, cows from farms outside the 20-kilometre (12-mile) Fukushima nuclear no-go zone were found to have eaten contaminated hay, raising fears that fallout reached a wider area than thought.
On Monday, Fukushima officials said they detected up to 157,000 becquerels of radioactive caesium per kilogram in straw used at some farms — about 520 times the government-designated limit.
The government has sought to reassure the public that there is no immediate health threat from eating standard quantities of the beef.
The accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant happened after the March disasters crippled cooling systems, sparking reactor meltdowns and the release of radiation into the air, sea and soil.
Tens of thousands remain evacuated from homes, businesses and farms inside the no-go area, and embattled plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. faces massive compensation costs.
Japan has not set up a centralised system to check vegetables and meat for radiation, relying instead on testing carried out by local authorities.
Agriculture minister Michihiko Kano said Tuesday that his ministry would carry out checks across the country on rice straw for beef cattle.
Edano said affected farmers would be compensated for losses as a result of the ban. “We will take every possible measure to ensure appropriate compensation for cattle farmers,” Edano said.
Revelations that contaminated food has reached markets have again raised food safety fears after radioactive materials were found in a range of goods including green vegetables, tea, milk and fish.
In the aftermath of the crisis at the Fukushima plant, the government restricted shipments of milk, spinach and other vegetables before lifting them, saying radiation was below safety levels.
Tea grown south of Tokyo was found to also be well over the government limit for contamination.
Workers are still battling to stabilise the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant four months after the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan’s northeast coast, leaving 20,000 dead or missing.
Kan’s government and TEPCO on Tuesday said the plant’s reactors were now being “stably” cooled and efforts to achieve a safe cold shutdown by January at the latest were on track, in an update on efforts to resolve the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl 25 years ago.
The nation was braced for heavy rain and fierce wind as strong typhoon Ma-On churned towards the country on Tuesday, prompting workers at the crippled plant to take safety measures.