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Japan: New Permissible Levels of Radioactivity in Foods

(Apr. 9, 2012) There were no legally binding standards for acceptable levels of radioactivity in food in Japan when the Great East Japan Earthquake hit the country in March 2011. The Food Sanitation Law, however, had a provision that prohibits the sale, use, or supply of foods that are poisonous or harmful for human consumption. (Shokuhin eisei ho [Food Sanitation Law], Law No. 233 of 1947, as amended by Law No. 49 of 2009, art. 6, item 2.) Within a few days of the onset of the Fukushima nuclear power plant crisis, which was caused by the tsunami that followed the earthquake, government tests detected higher radiation levels in spinach and milk produced near the nuclear plant. (Fredrik Dahl, Japan Mulls Fukushima Food Sale Ban: IAEA, REUTERS (Mar. 19, 2011).)

On March 17, 2011, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare (MHLW) issued a notice that specified provisional standard values of acceptable radiation levels in food, based on the Food Sanitation Law. (Press Release, Handling of Food Contaminated by Radioactivity, MHLW (Mar. 17, 2011); Handling of Food Contaminated by Radioactivity, Food Safety Department Notice No. 0317-3 of the (Mar. 17, 2011), MHLW.) The MHLW also adopted the Indices Relating to Limits on Food and Drink Ingestion that were indicated included by the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan (NSC) in its nuclear disaster guideline. (NSC, Genshiryoku shisetsu to no bosai taisaku ni tsuite [Regarding Disaster Preparedness of Nuclear Facilities] 23 (June 1980, as last amended Aug. 2010).)

Subsequently, the MHLW moved to establish new permissible radiation levels in various foods. Establishing these standards involves interacting with government councils and other agencies as well as ensuring conformity with various related regulations and is a time-consuming process. After consulting with its own Food Safety Commission and Pharmaceutical Affairs and Food Sanitation Council; with the Radiation Council of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT); and with the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, on March 15, 2012, the MHLW amended the relevant ordinance and notifications on standards of milk and milk products and of food and food additives, and announced it would make the new standards effective on April 1, 2012, with some exceptions. (Food Safety Department, Notice No. 0315-1 [in Japanese] (Mar. 15, 2012).)

The new upper limits for radioactive cesium in foods are: 100 becquerels per kilogram of cesium for regular food items such as meat, vegetables, and fish; 50 becquerels for milk and infant food; and 10 becquerels for drinking water. (Food Safety Department, Pharmaceutical & Food Safety Bureau, MHLW, New Standard Limits for Radionuclides in Foods, at 3 (last visited Mar. 22, 2012).)