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12 July, 2016

Science Council of Japan Holds Symposium on Food and Radiation Risk Communication

On July 4, the Science Council of Japan held a symposium in Tokyo on food-related issues, including production, distribution and consumer awareness. The symposium was organized to complement restoration efforts following the giant earthquake (known as the "Great East Japan Earthquake") of March 11, 2011, and the subsequent accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plants.

Activities have been carried out since 2012 for information and opinions to be exchanged and shared with people engaged in agriculture and fisheries, primarily in Fukushima Prefecture. At the recent symposium, participants took up the theme of food and radiation risk communication, as deep-rooted issues of fear and misinformation remain five years since the disaster.

The first speaker, Dr. Yuji Hasegawa, professor at Fukushima Medical University, talked about the present situation in Fukushima, where people remain concerned about food safety, primarily school lunches. Worried that it is Fukushima citizens themselves who are “negatively labeling” local produce, he said that every individual nationwide should have a radiation-measuring instrument and be able to decide for themselves—setting the tone for the discussions.

Next to speak was Makiko Orita, research associate at the Atomic Bomb Disease Institute of Nagasaki University, who is currently pursuing work in Kawauchi Village in Fukushima Prefecture. She reported on risk communication activities for people in the affected areas.

Orita has been actively promoting scientific understanding by establishing a food inspection area in each district. She has prepared a map showing radioactive cesium concentrations in mushrooms, as radioactive substances particularly tend to accumulate in them.

Speaking next was Dr. Yoko Niiyama, professor of agriculture at Kyoto University. An advocate of a two-way risk communication model based on the results of investigations of the public in the Kanto (Tokyo/Yokohama) and Kansai (Osaka/Kobe/Kyoto) regions of Japan, she said, “What the public knows is limited by the information environment.”

Due to increased public distrust in the central government and the media after the disaster, ordinary people gathered information individually and formed strong opinions about risk. Niiyama urged experts and specialists to find out first “what people fear” and provide information in response to that.

The next speaker at the symposium was Dr. Kazuo Onitake, a representative of Japan’s distribution industry in his capacity as director of the Safety Policy Promotion Office of the Japanese Consumers’ Co-operative Union. He reported on investigations carried out on a total of 2,000 households, primarily members of his union, in the Tohoku region after the disaster.

The investigations utilized duplicate diet sample collection methods, with the subjects asked to prepare duplicate sets of the same foods that were then analyzed for personal dietary exposures to contaminants. The investigations form part of the activities treating people and the radioactive substances in their food.

In response to the preceding presentations, Dr. Nobuyuki Yagi, associate professor at the Graduate School of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Tokyo, and an expert in markets for marine products, spoke on the recovery of regional economies. He noted a difference in recovery between Fukushima Prefecture and elsewhere in terms of the amount of fish caught in the affected areas.

He urged such actions as carrying out full-scale fisheries operations to rebuild distribution capabilities and brand power, implementing nationwide traceability, and ensuring and fostering human resources.

Yagi also touched upon the problems stemming from tritium-laced water being released into the sea from the Fukushima Daiichi NPPs. The water had been stored after being treated for contamination, and its release has encountered strong opposition from fisheries and related parties. Voicing his recognition of the difficulty of resolving that issue, he cited Niiyama’s research when mentioning that consumers “intuitively reject” products.

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