March 22, 2011 -- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said today it will stop all milk products and vegetable and fruit products imported from the Japan's prefectures of Fukushima, Ibaraki, Tochigi and Gunma from entering the U.S. -- a response to public fears about radiation from Japan's crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
This announcement comes despite the agency's repeated assurances that radiation found in foods in Japan was small, and posed no risk to the U.S. food supply.
Since 9/11, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have implemented blanket radiation screenings for nearly all U.S. imports, including food. The FDA programmed its import tracking systems to flag food shipments from Japan automatically, amid growing contamination concerns after this month's earthquake.
But the agency says it will now stop all shipments of milk products and fruits and vegetables originating from radiation affected areas from entering the U.S. It will detain these products without radiation screening, according to an FDA spokesperson.
In 2010, the U.S. imported $16.5 billion worth of milk, fruits and vegetables, of which a small fraction -- $6.725 million -- came from Japan, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Most of the imported dairy products are processed foods such as casein and cheese. Imported fruits and vegetables include potatoes, frozen vegetables, citrus fruits and melons.
Japan has already placed restrictions on foods, including spinach and milk that were produced in two provinces around the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Food inspectors detected iodine and cesium in the food, two of the more dangerous radioactive byproducts that are feared to have been released from the reactors in Fukushima.
While Japanese officials said none of the produce found to be contaminated in Japan has been shipped out of the country, there might have been some contaminated produce that was not tested and could have slipped through. Many food-safety experts say that consuming food or milk that contains high radiation levels can be as dangerous as exposure to high levels in the air.
High levels of iodine that can be absorbed through the milk can accumulate in the thyroid gland and cause thyroid cancer. High levels of cesium can damage cells and put many people at higher risk of developing other kinds of cancer.
Officials Say Japanese Seafood, Other Products Still Safe
While milk, fruit, and vegetable products seem to be the highest concern for the FDA, experts say there's no need to boycott sushi or other seafood delicacies just yet. Less than 4 percent of food is imported to the United States from Japan, including processed and snack foods. About 2 percent of the seafood the United States consumes comes from Japan, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Scallops are the largest seafood import from Japan to the U.S.; in 2010, nearly $64 million worth, 3,300 metric tons, came from there.
The largest perceived danger may be around raw seafood that is used to make sushi. Tuna is the second largest seafood import from Japan, with nearly 350 metric tons and nearly $4 million worth of imports, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But that is about a tenth of scallop imports.
Also, radiation levels become diluted in large bodies of water, so officials said seafood caught from the ocean should have only trace amounts of radiation, if any.