Food Safety Focus (57th Issue, April 2011) – Incident in Focus

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Food Safety Focus (57th Issue, April 2011) – Incident in Focus

Food Safety Responses to Nuclear Power Plant Incident in Japan

Reported by Ms. Shuk-man CHOW, Scientific Officer,
Risk Assessment Section, Centre for Food Safety

On 11 March 2011, an earthquake registering 9.0 on the Richter scale struck off the northeast coast of Japan. The earthquake and subsequent tsunami have damaged the cooling system of the four reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant resulting in a release of radioactive substances into the atmosphere and surrounding environment. In this article, we are going to introduce our responses to the nuclear incident in Japan.

Stepped-up Surveillance

The possible contamination of food chain by radiation fallout is shown in figure 1. In view of the incident of radiation leak at the Fukushima nuclear plant, the Centre for Food Safety (CFS) has stepped up surveillance at import level on fresh produce imported from Japan such as vegetables, fruits, milk, meat, and aquatic products, for radiological testing since 12 March 2011. Samples of Japanese food were also taken at retail level for testing of radiation level. The CFS currently adopts the guideline levels, which are international standards, laid down by the Codex Alimentarius Commission's Guideline Levels for Radionuclides in Foods Contaminated following a Nuclear or Radiological Emergency in testing the radiation levels of food. If a consignment of food is tested to have exceeded the guideline levels, the CFS will immediately mark and seal that consignment and arrange for disposal. According to Codex, when radionuclide levels in food do not exceed the corresponding guideline levels, the food should be considered as safe for human consumption.

In Hong Kong, three food samples belonging to two consignments of food (including a spinach, a white radish and a turnip sample) imported from Chiba prefecture, Japan were found to have radioactivity exceeded the Codex guideline level on 23 March 2011. Although consumption of the food will not impose immediate health risk, the CFS made the decision to safeguard public health and food safety through imposing restriction. The consignments had been disposed of and did not enter the Hong Kong market.

Figure 1.

Figure 1. In a nuclear emergency, radioactive substances may be released into the surrounding area. The invisible radioactive materials will behave in a way similar to a cloud of smoke dispersing into the atmosphere. Foods like fruits and vegetables or animal feed can become surface contaminated by deposit of radioactive materials falling from the air or carried by rain water. These radioactive substances will then be transferred into crops through soil or taken up by animals through inhalation or ingestion of the contaminated animal feed. Fish and shellfish can also take up the radioactive materials from the surrounding water. Over time, radioactivity can build up within food.

Prohibit Import and Supply of Food from Five Prefectures in Japan

From the beginning of the incident, the CFS has kept close communication with the food traders, Japan authorities and International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN) for the most updated information. Subsequent to the detection of excessive radiation in two consignments of food mentioned earlier, the Director of Food and Environmental Hygiene issued an Order, with effect from noon on 24 March 2011, to prohibit import and supply of a variety of Japanese food, including all fruits and vegetables, milk, milk beverages and dried milk, harvested, manufactured, processed or packed on or after 11 March 2011 from five prefectures in Japan. The order also prohibits import and supply of chilled or frozen game, meat and poultry, poultry eggs, and live, chilled or frozen aquatic products, unless they are accompanied by a certificate issued by the competent authority of Japan stating that the radiation levels do not exceed the guideline levels laid down by Codex. The prefectures affected include the four prefectures (Fukushima, Ibaraki, Tochigi, Gunma) which Japan government has prohibited export of raw milk, spinach and kakina (a kind of Japanese vegetable), and the Chiba prefecture from which the three food samples were found by the CFS to have unsatisfactory radioactivity results.

As of 20 April 2011, a total of 2 666 samples have been tested. All have satisfactory results except the two consignments mentioned above. The surveillance results were uploaded onto the CFS website for public information.

On 6 April 2011, the Expert Committee on Food Safety held a special meeting to discuss food safety issues related to the nuclear incident in Japan. The Expert Committee on Food Safety considered that the CFS's risk management approach and the prompt issuance of a prohibition order were appropriate and in line with the international consensus. The CFS will continue to strengthen food surveillance at both import and retail levels for food imported from Japan and will closely monitor the situation.

Key Points to Note:

  1. When radionuclide levels in food do not exceed the corresponding Codex guideline levels, the food should be considered as safe for human consumption.
  2. To safeguard public health and food safety, an Order has been issued to ban importing into and supplying within Hong Kong of a variety of produce harvested, manufactured, processed or packed from Fukushima, Ibaraki, Tochigi, Gunma and Chiba Prefectures of Japan.
  3. CFS will continue stepped-up surveillance to monitor radioactivity in food imported from Japan.

Advice to Public

  1. Possible residual surface radioactive contamination on food may be reduced by suitable food preparation, such as washing, brushing, scrubbing, or peeling.
  2. Concerned consumers may consult their suppliers if they have doubt about the origin of food imported from Japan.

Advice to Trade