Mark Notaras has a terrific piece on what things are like in Japan, in a culture that has for several generations not had to worry too much about their food. There are useful lessons there for all of us:
But to what geographic point do people’s concerns about radiation extend? Once nearby prefectures are associated with contamination, even if the contamination is confined to one small area or a few products, shoppers in Tokyo may choose to stay away from all raw or fresh products from an entire prefecture. When the Japanese government prohibited the sale of spinach from Ibaraki prefecture, south of Fukushima, this created the overall perception that produce from Ibaraki could be a health risk.
In response, community groups were quick to set up online campaigns and farmers’ markets to “blow away restrained buying” and prevent under-threat farmers from losing their incomes and reputations.
The government too, in order to allay people’s health fears, has been proactive in conducting tests that verify which products are safe to eat. The problem here is that the credibility of Japanese authorities generally has been undermined by their handling of the nuclear crisis, and therefore people might be hesitant to accept their advice on food safety issues. Who and what information to trust in this situation continues to be a daily challenge faced by everyone in East Japan.
Global reputation under threat
Japanese cuisine and produce have forged a reputation for sophistication and quality, arguably unmatched anywhere in the world. Tokyo has held the title of the world’s premier restaurant city for four consecutive years, with a record 14 restaurants receiving three stars in the 2011 version of the coveted Michelin guide. Tokyo’s rise as the world’s culinary capital has coincided with growth in the popularity of Japanese cuisine, especially sushi and famed Japanese beef (wa-gyu), and establishment of the country’s strong reputation as a provider of quality produce and seafood.
But the tsunami demonstrated that something established over decades can be dismantled in a few minutes. In relation to seafood in particular, the “negative perception” that a prefecture like Ibaraki is suffering within Japan is being replicated on the international stage with respect to food from all over Japan. Both foreign tourists travelling to Japan (the numbers of which have drastically slowed of course) and overseas importers are avoiding Japanese seafood in particular, even if it has been harvested from areas unaffected by the disasters. These boycotts are affecting the whole country’s fishing industry that was already decimated by the destruction of over 2,300 fishing vessels and 125 harbours.
With growing doubts held by tourists, chefs and diners over the extent of nuclear contamination, it was only a matter of time before trading partners began implementing food bans. Countries including the United States, South Korea and Taiwan have all banned various foods harvested from Japan’s nuclear-affected areas.
One of the things I like about this article is that it is very clear about the issues that arise from both perception and actual contamination and shortfall. Those things are sometimes separable with various strategies, but more often they are deeply intertwined.