Buying Fish and SeaFood: How Do You Know If It’s Contaminated After the Japanaese Nuclear Disaster at Fukushima?

The nuclear disaster at Fukushima’s Daiichi power plant was international news in March 2011. By May 2011, though, the disaster had largely dropped out of the headlines.

Many consumers who’d worried about the possibility of buying and eating contaminated food from Japan will have begun to relax and forget the possible danger of eating food contaminated by radiation.

But Japanese food contaminated by radiation still poses a possible risk to health.

The World Health Organization (WHO) published guidelines after the disaster. (see link at the end of this article.) WHO pointed out that because of the devastation in the area around Fukushima – caused by the earthquake and tsunami – it’s highly unlikely that there will have been any food harvested and exported from the region. WHO also pointed out that the Japanese government is monitoring radiation levels in food with a view to keeping contaminated food off the market.

There are two obvious flaws in these arguments though. The first is that if contaminated raw food materials do find their way out of Japan into other countries they may be processed there and sold locally or overseas as the product of those countries and not as Japanese food. The second problem is that massive quantities of sea water were poured onto the cracked reactors in the desperate effort to prevent nuclear meltdown at Fukushima and a great deal of that contaminated water is known to have run straight into the Pacific Ocean carrying high levels of radiation with it. It will certainly have contaminated fish and other sea life that is being delivered to fish markets, supermarket shelves, restaurants and dinner tables in future. As WHO explains:

“Radioactivity can build up within food as radionuclides are transferred through soil into crops or animals, or into rivers, lakes and the sea where fish and shellfish could take up the radionuclides. The severity of the risk depends on the radionuclide mix and the level of contaminant released.”

Since many fish can cover great distances at sea, there’s no reliable way at present to keep contaminated fish and seafood out of the supply chain.

This week I was shopping for fish and noticed that many packets of frozen fish on sale are sourced from the North Pacific Ocean and North East Pacific Ocean. How can those fish products be guaranteed free of radionuclides? Who wants to take the risk of eating that fish or feeding it to their kids? Even if the water in the North East Pacific isn’t dangerously contaminated after Fukushima there’s no guarantee that the fish are free of contamination. Small fish from the east coast of Japan – contaminated – will have been eaten by larger fish and so on. Large fish which can swim great distances may end up as the product of the North East Pacific Ocean. Their travels across the ocean may have been fuelled by eating many smaller contaminated fish and other sea life.

For the foreseeable future it’s probably a good idea to choose fish and seafood very carefully with respect to its origins. Any fishing ground may have a level of pollution – from petrochemicals, plastics and so on – but the danger of radioactive contamination is too serious to risk if you can avoid it. I left the very inexpensive but possibly dangerous Pacific fish in the supermarket freezer this week. I chose fish that came from the Mediterranean sea instead. And last weekend I ate oysters and mussels that also came from the south of France (where I live.) It’s all too easy when shopping in a hurry to ignore the geographic origin of the fish you buy. But, post-Fukushima, it makes sense to take notice.

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