In his opening remarks at the Asean Plus Three summit of regional leaders in Manila, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said sufficient time had passed since an earthquake and tsunami wiped out a nuclear reactor on Japan’s east coast for countries to consider receiving imports of foods that are widely considered to be safe.
"It has been six years since the Great East Japan Earthquake. I strongly request that import controls on Japanese food to be lifted, based on scientific grounds," Abe told delegates.
Following the nuclear accident in 2011, a number of countries introduced import restrictions on food produced in certain Japanese regions. Many maintain these despite a widespread clean-up and decontamination operation that is said to have been successful.
In May, the head of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations advised that the safety of food produced in areas around the nuclear plant was “assured”.
“At the moment, we don’t see any reason to raise concern about the safety of food,” director general Jose Graziano da Silva told a tasting event in Tokyo, where he ate sweets made from pears and apples grown in the northeastern prefecture.
“Six years after the accident, we continue to monitor all the foods from the area affected. We have to say that the Japanese government has been supportive and very transparent despite the difficult situation.”
Agri-food exports are high on Abe’s agenda. He has stated that he wants to grow the segment by a third by 2019 to JPY1tr (US$8.8bn), though some analysts suggest that this ambition might be too limited at a time when shipments have been growing quickly and foreign markets have been easing their restrictions.
Yet some 30 countries, including China, South Korea and Taiwan, as well as Southeast Asian nations, still impose restrictions, while around 20 have eased or lifted the measures.
Hong Kong, which bans imports from the five affected prefectures, is Japan’s biggest food export destination, accounting for a quarter of trade. Tokyo views the territory as a model of the potential Japan sees in increasing trade, based on the trust its consumers have for the provenance of its premium products.
America is Japan’s second-biggest market for food exports, followed by Taiwan, mainland China and South Korea. The agriculture ministry estimates that the top five destinations accounted for about 70% of food exports last year.
Meanwhile, the government is investing about US$218m in targeted improvements to agricultural trade infrastructure, such as better storage facilities near airports and meat processing plants that will comply with foreign health standards.