September 8th, 2011
03:46 AM GMT
(CNN) – Kei San is a Japanese chef who lives in Hong Kong. He also hosts a television cooking show showcasing Japanese seafood.
Lucky for him, his uncle is a fisherman in Hokkaido who supplies him with succulent Hokkaido scallops. But his uncle has seen his business plummet more than 50% because of the nuclear crisis in Fukushima. Even though Hokkaido is 840 kilometers from the nuclear site, the global concern over radioactive contamination has hurt all Japanese food exports.
"My uncle is 60 years old and he's thinking of retiring early. Business is so bad he's basically taking a few months off as a vacation," Kei San says.
Six months after the March 11 trio of calamities – earthquake, tsunami then nuclear disaster – sales of sushi, soba, ramen and other Japanese food industry staples has not fully recovered – and it may be some time before it does. The main obstacle is the lingering doubts about the safety of Japanese food both in Japan and overseas.
These concerns flared up again in July when the Japanese government detected radioactive cesium in Japanese beef that was higher than government safety levels. Inspectors believe the beef was from cattle that had eaten contaminated rice straw.
Dennis Tokuaki Wu is knows the food industry faces an uphill battle to regain public trust in Japanese food. He's the managing director of his family business Aji-No-Chinmi Co. The company supplies Japanese food products to 7-11 convenience stores, SOGO department store, supermarkets APITA and Jusco in Hong Kong. His company's total sales last year were $12.9 million. The nuclear disaster caused a 30% drop in sales so far this year. With the help of in-store promotions, sales are starting to recover lost ground. But it wasn't until July when he started to see a significant rebound in his business.
He deals directly with 10 Japanese farmers and is trying to convince them to conduct their own radiation checks on their crops and issue certificates of guarantee. Wu believes showcasing these certificates on packaging will win back consumers. This is in addition to the food inspections the Japanese government already does before food is exported. The farmers are in favor of the idea but cannot afford the cost of voluntary testing. While some local governments subsidize the farmers in their testing, not all farmers are covered. Wu and the farmers are trying to push provincial governments to help pay for the tests.
Before the nuclear crisis in March, Japanese food safety was already heralded as one of the strictest in the world. Since the crisis, the Japanese government has tightened the guidelines on exports.
Different countries have instituted different safety regulations when it comes to Japanese food. According to Japan's Agriculture Ministry, the EU requires radioactive test results of food coming in from 12 specific prefectures. In Hong Kong, Japanese imports are tested upon entry.
"The Hong Kong government sends 3 or 4 people with handy scans to our warehouse, before we even open the container, they'll scan first and they'll even bring samples back to the lab. It's like a double test. "Wu says.
Chef Kei San has adjusted his business operations to accommodate public concern. In his online frozen seafood store, he now offers products from other countries. "I can see still some people are afraid of Japanese seafood products. So I may slow down the import of Japanese products. It's not 100% Japanese anymore." He sells sashimi-quality fish from Europe and shrimp from Argentina in order to give his customers a choice.
The Japanese food industry has been forced to change and adapt after the disaster. But there’s no guarantee the next six months will be any easier.
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