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Fukushima Pref. to stop blanket radiation checks on rice, start random testing

A woman, left foreground, participates in a tour to experience the blanket screening of Fukushima-produced rice for any radioactive materials. (Mainichi)

FUKUSHIMA -- The Fukushima Prefectural Government will halt blanket radiation screening of rice produced in the nuclear disaster-hit prefecture in favor of random checks as early as 2020, it has been learned.

Testing all of the prefecture's annual rice output of some 10 million bags costs 6 billion yen a year. Meanwhile, no cases of rice exceeding the government-set limit of 100 becquerels of radioactive cesium per kilogram have been found in the past three years, according to the prefectural government. However, blanket testing will continue for the time being in areas once subject to evacuation orders in the wake of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant disaster.

The prefecture set up a panel comprising officials from Japan Agricultural Cooperatives (JA) and consumer group members in July last year to discuss the inspection system. The prefectural government presented the plan to curtail the rice screening on Jan. 18, which was largely agreed to by the panel, and is set to finalize the plan shortly. Random testing has already been introduced for Fukushima Prefecture vegetables and fruits.

When the blanket screening on Fukushima rice began in 2012, there were 71 bags of rice produced that year with radioactive cesium levels exceeding the national limit, accounting for 0.0007 percent of all bags, according to the prefectural government. After natural attenuation of cesium and farmers' soil management progressed, there were no cases of bags exceeding the limit from 2015 onward, while 99.99 percent of bags dipped under the minimum detection limit of 25 becquerels of cesium per kilogram.

In response, the prefectural government determined that it would be appropriate to switch to random screening after a two- to three-year preparatory period.

As areas where evacuation orders have been lifted are still working to resume rice farming, blanket screening will remain in place in those areas until enough data has been accumulated to guarantee product safety. Farmers who grow rice for their own consumption can have it tested upon their request.

The prefectural government has footed some 5 billion yen of the some 6 billion yen a year needed for the blanket screening, and has demanded plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. pay the same amount in compensation. The remaining 1 billion yen has been subsidized by the central government.

Fears remain among farmers and distributers, though, over whether the current image of Fukushima rice as "safe as it has been screened" would change to "dangerous unless tested" under the new screening policy.

"I want authorities to come up with ways that allow everyone to feel at ease eating Fukushima rice," said Hitoshi Saito, 62, a farmer from Date, Fukushima Prefecture. Saito went on to question "how consumers will feel" about the scaling back on the inspection system.

In a questionnaire conducted by the prefectural government last year, 40 percent of farmers in Fukushima requested more efficient screening on locally produced rice, while another 40 percent demanded that blanket testing continue. Ten percent said no screening was necessary.

Shin Nagamine, 43, a farmer from the town of Aizubange, hailed the new policy, but added, "It's unknown whether consumers will accept it in terms of 'safety.' I want the central and prefectural governments to get the word out to the whole country the fact that Fukushima rice is safe and secure."

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