March 17th, 2011
02:09 AM GMT
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Hong Kong, China (CNN) – My 10-month old daughter loves hard boiled eggs. I buy Japanese eggs to mix into her solids. Here in Hong Kong, I go to Japanese supermarkets to do my grocery shopping. I trust the quality. Then a relative from abroad called this week and asked if I was certain Japanese produce was safe.

Well, that's a tough question to answer at this point. I do know it's a question a lot of families are starting to ask.

Japanese food is hugely popular worldwide, stocking shelves at high-end stores around Asia and specialty shops in Europe and the U.S.  Governments are taking precautions by doing thorough inspections of Japanese produce. Hong Kong's Center for Food Safety has already conducted radiation tests on at least 34 samples of fresh vegetables, meat and fish from Japan. The center reports all test results were satisfactory.

"As far as radiation is concerned, I think the most at-risk articles are those fresh products, perhaps dairy products, fresh fruits and vegetables,” said Dr. York Chow, Hong Kong's Secretary for Food and Health, at a news conference earlier this week. “In case we detect anything, of course, we will ban those products from Hong Kong."

Thailand's government is focusing on Japanese imports of meat, milk, fish and seaweed.  A radiation physicist from the Office of Atoms for Peace has told CNN the agency will work with Thailand's Health Ministry to do random checks of imported food from Japan. On Tuesday, India also ordered radiation tests of Japanese food at its ports and airports. Only food originating from Japan after March 11 will be tested.

Paul Yang lives in Tokyo, where he grew up, and is a father with two young children. He and his wife are not changing their family's eating habits, he said.

"I am not worried about the safety of Japanese produce," Yang said. "The majority of farm produce and agricultural products come from warmer areas, therefore further away from the Fukushima area (where the nuclear reactor is)."

"Also, many of the products are labeled with their origin of production so we would know if it is from Fukushima. Right now, the radiation level within 20 to 30 kilometers (12 miles to 18.6 miles) of Fukushima is high, but as soon as you move away from the origin of radiation, the effects of it fall dramatically, actually exponentially,” Yang says. “The closest location that produces significant amounts (of fresh produce) for Tokyo, for example, is Chiba or Ibaraki prefectures, which is approximately 150 to 200 kilometers (93 miles to 124 miles) from Fukushima."

While Yang is not worried, the perception of possibly tainted produce is already having a knock-on effect. Kirby Daley, senior strategist of Newedge Group, said this week on CNN's World Business Today program: "We're already hearing talk in our office about women stopping to buy Japanese cosmetics. We're talking about Japanese food imports being stopped and we're not going to be trusting the sushi.

“These are all anecdotal, but this is what will weigh on the economy for a long time,” Daley said. “And the economy is not that strong to start with."

Peter McGuire, an independent market strategist based in Australia, says it's too early to say whether the quality of Japanese food will change because many products shipped before the earthquake are still on store shelves. "We just have to see the severity of this. It's so hard to speculate."   One item that's selling out:  Japanese baby formula. In Hong Kong, many parents bought extra boxes of the formula manufactured before Friday's earthquake and tsunami.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director of Center for Science in the Public Interest in the United States, answered various questions from CNN via email. She says she is not concerned about Japan's food safety for two main reasons: 1) Japan is a net importer of food and 2) Japan has one of the best food safety systems in the world.

De Waal also compared today's Fukushima situation with the 1986 Chernobyl accident and its impact on food.

"Following the 1986 Chernobyl accident, the U.S. tested nearly 8900 samples of both animal and non-animal based imported foods coming from the affected area over a five year period,” De Waal said. “They found 1.4% (of imported foods) were contaminated above the regulatory limits, with the majority of these being in the animal products side.  They also tested samples of food from U.S. Embassies in the region and found the highest numbers of positive samples in vegetables (both leafy and non-leafy), some fruit and spices.

“Chernobyl was a much worse disaster, as the cloud went over a large agricultural area of Europe.  Therefore, these findings are illustrative of a worse case scenario, not the current situation involving food exports from Japan."

She does caution that the most vulnerable agricultural sectors during a nuclear emergency are dairy and vegetables. "It is important that all food animals in the affected areas be sheltered along with their food and water sources," DeWaal said.  Cooking or boiling radiation-contaminated food does not make the food safe to eat, she said.

Most experts seem to be in agreement that the biggest confidence-builder is Japan's strict food regulations.  Jean-Yves Chow, a senior food and agribusiness research analyst at Rabobank International, says Japan's food safety standards are "one of the highest in the world." But Chow does add, "In food safety, zero risk does not exist."

soundoff (32 Responses)
  1. divided

    This will be probably the main difference between Chernobyl and japan since no one returned well not that i know of to that relative area Ukraine farming etc. for probably who know how many miles. But japan has great food from its volcano terrain good for farming but now its well test everything where ever you are in Japan. Food contamination will be the second most expensive thing behind the health effect of radiation itself. Money cannot fix this. the area for farming becomes deserted. Japan Doesn't have whole lotta land like around chernobyl. and chernobyl as far as i know wasnt in earth quake zone so the tomb its in is pretty stable. And its going to be hard to maintain a tomb in earth quake zone but it will be able to be cooled constantly by the ocean water not like chernobyl.

    March 17, 2011 at 5:28 am |
  2. Khamal khashy

    My question is what is the Government and the UN doing about this Japan EarthQuark?

    March 17, 2011 at 5:30 am |
  3. maki1

    I live in Japan and the comment from the man in Tokyo about food being labeled where it is from is misleading. Lets take fish for example, a fishing vessel that leaves Nagoya port in the south and travels north to say Miyagi prefecture, and returns with a catch full of fish. The origin of those fish will not be labeled as Miygai but rather Nagoya. So for those who live in Japan, be cautious about that whole origin label without at least studying the rules and regulations.

    March 17, 2011 at 7:14 am |
  4. maki2

    I live in Japan and the comment from the man in Tokyo about food being labeled where it is from is misleading. Lets take fish for example, a fishing vessel that leaves Nagoya port in the south and travels north to say Miyagi prefecture, and returns with a catch full of fish. The origin of those fish will not be labeled as Miygai but rather Nagoya. So for those who live in Japan, be cautious about that whole origin label without at least studying the rules and regulations.

    March 17, 2011 at 7:16 am |
  5. optimistic:)

    japan tragedy only means that our life in earth is temporary...we should not forget that life is changing and life is life to the fullest, experience pain,joy,disappointments and anger. At the end of the day, u will realize that life is wonderful..its not bed of roses thats right, but remember you cannot appreciate the essence of life when you dont know what's sadness and happiness:)

    March 17, 2011 at 7:48 am |
  6. Superman

    The problem is, the genuine problem, is, frankly, the Japanese government cannot be trusted.

    For those who are unfamiliar, it is an issue. Many ignorant people criticise the JApanese population, or rather, include them within criticisms of the past and recent past. Atrocities of war that are rarely known in the west, etc.

    The japanese people are very, very proud..

    The Japanese government, however, takes it too far. The asian stereotype or desire for PERFECTION is taken to such an extreme at govt levels, that very little they say can be trusted.

    They are notorious for this. Even worse than the USA...whichi s saying a lot!

    Perhaps many acknowledge this, hence the panic that would not exist otherwise? We reap what we sow!

    March 17, 2011 at 8:07 am |
  7. Black

    I'm appalled at the hysteria. The possibility of exported japanese food being contaminated is utterly bogus for now. Why do you people not read some basic information on radiation risks instead of wasting your energy on completely ungrounded panic? Where is your curiosity? Do you want to know or do you want to fear, running from ghosts all your lives? There is no way japanese food could leave the country dangerously contaminated undetected. Any effects from tjernobyl which was massive in europe compared to this situation, have yet to be detected in all the regions where everybody went apesh*t with hysteria about fallout. The danger is far less than you will imagine. There are numbers, absorb them, understand them. Live in relative peace. I heard a radiation expert on television last night say that the damage from the hype and stress will far outweigh any effects of radiation. Well put; this man was a specialist, why not listen to the answers instead of repeating the questions?

    March 17, 2011 at 9:10 am |
  8. Black

    And at you Pauline Chiou,
    I believe it would be better if you not being a specialist would refrain fron commenting whatsoever. It is NOT a tough question for people who have the knowledge. As a journalist I think it would be better for you to understand than to speculate on an obviously oversensitive issue like this one.

    March 17, 2011 at 9:15 am |
  9. Kim

    Radiation is something most people just Do Not Understand.

    You're exposed to it every day. The sun makes it. Rocks make it. A sunburn is exposure to ultraviolet RADIATION. Sheesh.

    People are in more danger from radiation by getting too many x-rays at the doctor than they are from eating any food from Japan. Even food from Fukushima... because for starters, any food in the markets right now would have had to been shipped out last week ... BEFORE the plant crisis.

    And Mother Nature can still wreak more havoc than we can... go over to Wikipedia and look up "Mount Tambora eruption of 1915". That did way more damage than Chernobyl. And this is just talking Earth stuff. If a big ol' meteor crashed into us, we'd be done. But you can't live your life focusing on this stuff.

    This is stupid panic. I don't blame the media; they're percentage-wise as ignorant as most people.

    March 17, 2011 at 11:07 am |
  10. Amy

    "In food safety, zero risk does not exist."
    I totally agree, and god knows what the variations will be after the radiation.
    Never risk your life over your tone!

    March 17, 2011 at 11:27 am |
  11. GrammyJean

    I don't think it's alarmist to worry about food safety for one's small child. Even trace amounts of radioactivity can be harmful to small children, nevermind the "within regulatory guidelines". After Chernoble (not suggesting this will be a Chernoble) children were "poisoned" by drinking milk from cows that had been exposed to radiation months earlier. I think it's a very logical step to assume eggs would be similarly affected.

    However, I will point out that eggs and other items from Japan that are in supermarkets NOW would be safe. BTW, did you know that you can successfully freeze eggs? They may be frozen in the carton and then placed into a plastic bag in the freezer (some may crack slightly from expansion during freezing), and removed one at a time for use. Just let them warm up a bit or float in room temperature for a few minutes before using. It is even possible to make a perfect 'over easy' egg when they have been previously frozen.

    Disclaimer: I am not an expert! I found this 'frozen egg' information out accidentally because my refrigerator gets too cold in the back part of the shelf, so my eggs were often frozen when I wanted to use them.

    March 17, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  12. g.r.r.

    I would be less worried about Japanese foods and more concerned about other Asian foods. The fact is, that the Japanese are fastidious about their foods and food that is sent to other parts of the world will maintain high qualities, such as not being radioactive. OTH, China, and most of Southeast Asia will use the same waters, and will not care if radiation were detected. They would simply not eat it themselves, but pass it on to others. At this time, my family will not eat any food coming out of CHina or South East Asia.

    March 17, 2011 at 7:36 pm |
  13. NadePaulKuciGravMcKi

    Total information blackout of what is about to occur.
    The nightmare in Japan will overtake everything.
    Spy satellite IR studies tell no lies to the VIPs.

    Quite soon, the media and governments
    will be discredited in spectacular fashion

    March 19, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
  14. Jairo

    Pauline, excellent and descriptive report, which determines the care to have in the purchase and consumption in order to prevent health effects that may occur with the consumption of food contaminated with radioactivity.

    Faithfully follow you on twitter and I love your news on CNN. Regards.

    @ velasquezjairo

    March 22, 2011 at 3:34 am |
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