April 15, 2024

Screening the Day’s Catch for Radiation

“I just want to make sure whatever we use is safe,” said Mr. Ripert, whose staff is using the device to screen every item of food that enters the restaurant, regardless of its origin. He has also stopped buying fish from Japan, which means no high-quality, farm-raised hamachi and kampachi for raw seafood dishes.

“Nobody knows how the currents will carry the contaminated water,” he said.

Despite assurances by health officials that radiation from the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan is unlikely to show up in the food supply, worries about contaminated foods are growing among consumers, businesses and governments across the globe.

On Tuesday, the Japanese government announced new radiation standards for fish after high levels of radioactive iodine and cesium were found in fish caught halfway between the reactor site and Tokyo. In response, the European Union said it would tighten its own radiation limits for Japanese food imports. India said it would ban all food from Japan for at least three months.

In the United States, where about 4 percent of food imports come from Japan, the Food and Drug Administration has restricted some foods from the country. And the agency is working with customs officials to screen incoming fish and other food for traces of radiation.

So far, that screening has identified seven items that required further testing to see if the radiation detected exceeded normal background levels, according to Siobhan Delancey, an F.D.A. spokeswoman. Those items included tea and flavoring compounds. She said three of the items had been cleared for delivery and four were awaiting test results.

Patricia A. Hansen, a senior scientist at the F.D.A., acknowledged that the radiation detection methods used to screen food imports were not sensitive enough to detect a single contaminated fish in a large shipment. But she said that small amounts of contamination did not represent a public health hazard. A person would have to consume large amounts of fish in excess of what are known as an “intervention level,” or threshold level, of radiation for an extended period of time before it would be considered dangerous, she said.

“One fish that might be at an intervention level in a huge cargo container, we’re not going to pick that up,” she said. “But the important context is, is that one fish at the intervention level a public health concern? No, it is not.”

Nicholas Fisher, a professor of marine sciences at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, said that, according to some radiation safety guidelines, people could safely eat 35 pounds of fish each year containing the level of cesium 137 detected in the Japanese fish.

“You’re not going to die from eating it right away,” he said, “but we’re getting to levels where I would think twice about eating it.” All the talk about radioactive food in Japan, which earlier banned milk and other farm products from areas near the crippled plant, has made some people uneasy, even thousands of miles away.

“When radioactive material started going into the ocean, that raised my concern greatly,” Karen Werner, 68, said on Tuesday as she shopped for fish at 99 Ranch Market in Richmond, Calif. “Right now, I’m not too worried about it showing up in fish, but I’m keeping my eye on it.”

Lee Nakamura, a partner who manages the fish counter at Tokyo Fish Market in Berkeley, Calif., estimated that one in five customers asked about possible radiation, but he had not yet seen an impact on sales. He said his Japanese suppliers had assured him that fish were being tested for possible radiation.

“Everything is under a microscope right now,” Mr. Nakamura said. “I feel confident the fish is safe. Everyone in Japan and here is looking at it and double-checking it before it gets to us.”

Several restaurant owners and fish importers said that while they continued to buy some fish from Japan, it came from areas far from the reactor site.

Still, Scott Rosenberg, an owner of Sushi Yasuda, a highly regarded sushi restaurant in Manhattan, said he planned to buy a radiation detector and would post a notice on the restaurant’s Web site to let customers know about the testing. “We want to make sure there is no exposure,” he said.

Elisabeth Rosenthal and Malia Wollan contributed reporting.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/06/business/06food.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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