The UK recently published a risk assessment report in December 2021, on the possible radiological risk to public health from consuming imported Japanese food if radiocaesium levels were removed, indicating that it was looking at lifting bans on foods imported from areas in Japan affected by the Fukushima nuclear disaster back in 2011.
At present, the UK is still employing import controls from before Brexit to control Japanese imports, namely EU Regulation 2016/6 which impose special conditions on these including a maximum level of 100 Bq/kg radiocaesium activity concentration in food.
The results of the report were very positive in favour of Japan – although the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) did not outright recommend that the bans be abolished, it concluded that removing this limit would not cause increased risk to public health.
“The conclusion of this risk assessment is that the removal of the 100 Bq/kg maximum level on radiocaesium for imported Japanese food would result in a negligible increase in dose and any associated risk to UK consumers,” said the FSA via a formal statement.
“[We] estimate the dose to UK consumers would be no more than 0.016 mSv (millisievert) per year as a result of consuming food from Japan [whereas] for comparison, the average radiation dose to members of the public in the UK is 2.7mSv from all natural and artificial sources.”
The FSA has since formally launched a public consultation calling for comment on three potential options – One, to do nothing and retain current controls; Two, to remove existing controls on food and feed specifically applying to Fukushima nuclear contamination; Three, to retain the existing 100Bg/kg levels but adjust the list of foods and Japanese prefectures covered by enhanced controls.
The current Japanese prefectures affected by these controls are Fukushima, Miyagi, Nagano, Gunma, Ibaraki, Yamanashi, Yamagata, Shizuoka, Niigata. FSA has also highlighted that Option Two is the most ‘desirable’ one based on its analysis.
This news has of course been met with open arms and much joy by the Japanese government, which has long been lobbying for countries all over the world to remove bans on the so-called ‘nuclear foods’ given the long period of time that has elapsed since the Fukushima nuclear disaster over a decade ago.
The local Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) in particular has been quick to highlight the UK’s review and call for relevant stakeholders to send in their comments. It even took the initiative to publish a Japanese-language summary on its website.
“Eliminating import restrictions [has been highlighted by the FSA] as the desirable option, and this would mean that in future importing Japanese foods to the UK would not require certificates for radioactive substances or prior radioactive substance inspection,” stated the ministry's summary.
“This would be good news as along with this, food companies and business operators would be able to reduce the cost burdens [for obtaining] these certifications.
“In addition, the removal of these import restrictions reflects the results of the UK’s risk assessment, which has already shown that there would be no increased risk to local consumers.”
It was also highlighted that missing this opportunity - and having the UK maintain or merely amend current restrictions, based on Option One or Option Three – would mean waiting for at least another year to see any changes made.
This is because the existing restrictions were put in place as emergency measures, which are reviewed bi-annually and the next earliest review would be on June 30 2023. Option Three would also require additional secondary legislation to make any amendments, which also would need to wait until June 30 2023 to be reviewed.
The FSA’s public consultation is still ongoing, and any comments can still be submitted until February 11 this year. More information can be found here.
Japan’s ongoing ‘nuclear-free’ fight
Much of Japan’s potential success can actually be attributed to its own meticulous and detailed research and monitoring of the radiation effects in the prefectures affected by the nuclear plant meltdown.
According to the FSA’s recent assessment, a lot of local Japanese government monitoring data was used in its research, and the data is extremely detailed, down to testing for monthly levels of radioactivity in foods from the affected prefectures.
This is an example of the valiant effort Japan has put into getting bans on its food exports removed, and it does seem to have paid off. In addition to having gained entry to APAC countries with known tight food safety controls such as Singapore and New Zealand, it also made a great deal of progress in the Middle East early last year.
Meanwhile, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced in September 2021 that it had ‘lifted the import restrictions on Japanese food products due to radioactive substances’.
Some of its remaining challenges look tough to crack, however, such as China and Taiwan. As of May 2021, only China, Taiwan, South Korea, Macau and Hong Kong maintain some form of full import bans on food from Fukushima-impacted areas.