The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has decided to stop scanning imported food items from Japan for radioactive contamination, a practice which started after the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, which occurred due to a massive earthquake and tsunami. These food items will now get unrestricted access to India. Experts are divided on the move. Some are of the opinion that the decision poses a huge health risk to the people as five years is not enough to sanitise an area of nuclear contamination. On the contrary, other experts argue that after five years of screening, the FSSAI hasn’t found any contamination; so this is a good move and will help boost agricultural trade between the two countries, which had dropped severely in recent years.
The Imports Division of FSSAI recently released an order that stated: “The advisory dated 15.03.2011 issued regarding monitoring of food articles imported from Japan for radioactive contamination, issued earlier as a temporary measure in 2011, is hereby withdrawn.” The order was conveyed to the Customs Department of the Union Ministry of Finance, food safety commissioners in all states and the Ministry of Health, among others.
Areeb Hashmi, a Bangalore-based expert on the prevention of nuclear catastrophe, told The Sunday Guardian: “This stoppage is alarming. Five years is not enough to sanitise an area after a nuclear disaster. There is a grave risk of radioactive contamination from unscanned food items. What the government needs to understand is that the consumer doesn’t have any idea about where these food items are being sourced from. The consumers consume these items, and are at risk of deadly cancer. Who will take responsibility for that?”
Arguing that prudent scanning is the only way forward for food imports from Japan, Hashmi said, “We didn’t stop importing foods from Japan after the Fukushima incident. On the contrary, we stopped prudent scanning. There is not a speck of wisdom in these decisions. We could very well import these foods from some other country. If you want to help a partner country in tough times, you cannot put your own citizens at risk.” India primarily imports food items like seafood, vegetables, vegetable seeds, fruits, grains, liquor, meat, and confectionary from Japan.
According to Pawan Kumar Agarwal, CEO, FSSAI, the screening process delays the import process unnecessarily. Agarwal said that “food products imported from Japan during the past five years after the Fukushima disaster have been under severe scrutiny” to find traces of radioactive contamination. Agarwal maintained that “no food product, till now, has been found contaminated with any radioactive substances” and they have decided to stop the monitoring “as it is not required anymore”. The move is seen by some as an attempt by the Indian government to show its conviction towards further strengthening the ties with long-standing partner Japan. Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Japan in 2014 and his counterpart Shinzo Abe made the trip to Indian shores in 2015.
Experts feel that since screening bodies set up by FSSAI didn’t find any contaminated food item imported from Japan, there is no need for people to worry about lifting the screening requirements.
Antriksh Thukral, a Tokyo-based policy expert and economist, told this newspaper: “Indian authorities didn’t find any contamination in food imported from Japan in five years. What is the need for some people to act so paranoid about lifting the screening requirement now?”
Explaining that there was a need to carry out checks earlier by all countries, including India, Thukral said, “After the Fukushima disaster, it was prudent to carry out checks for contamination. Many countries like the US, Germany and Russia still maintain a strict screening mechanism to scan food products from Japan. India has lifted it now. Others will do it in due time.” He added that this move would also have a positive economic impact as it would improve trade relations and trust between the countries.
“Japan has promised huge investments in India over the next 20 years in infrastructure, real estate, aerospace, automobile, telecom and defence sectors along with strategic collaboration in the Asia-Pacific region. This partnership is going to help all sections of society. During 2014-15, Indian food imports from Japan stood at $6.51 million, which is significantly low, when you consider the size of bilateral trade between the countries in the same financial year stood at $15.51 billion,” he added.
In 2011, as a result of a massive earthquake in Japan, there was a radioactive leak from nuclear reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants. Radioactive isotopes leaked from the reactor’s containment vessels were discharged into the sea. Since then, radioactive particles like Iodine-131 and Caesium-134/137, in small quantities, have been detected around the globe.
Caesium-137 has a half-life of 30.17 years, which means it will take a little over 30 years for the isotope’s radioactivity to degrade to its original value. If these radioactive substances enter the human body, they have the potential to cause major cellular damage, which leads to cancer, which in most cases leads to death.
In recent cases, contaminated food items imported from Japan were reported. As recently as in March 2015, the US Food and Drugs Administration found a small shipment of green tea to be contaminated with radioactive substances. Stanford and Stony Brook University found contaminated Blue-fin Tuna both on the shores of Japan and California in the Pacific.