High Radiation in Japanese Fish Raises Concerns

FDA will screen Japanese imported fish before it comes into U.S. food supply.

April 5, 2011, 7:28 AM

April 5, 2011 — -- Are you green around the gills with Monday's news that Japan's Tokyo Electric Power Co. is dumping tons of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean? Experts say there's no need for worry--at least for now.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it will require seafood imported from Japan to be checked for radiation before it enters the food supply. But even with the new screenings, no one in the U.S. government is saying "stop eating tuna."

"Other food products from this area, including seafood, although not subject to the Import Alert, will be diverted for testing by FDA before they can enter the food supply," the FDA said in a prepared statement. "FDA will also be monitoring and testing food products, including seafood, from other areas of Japan as appropriate."

More specifically, an FDA spokesperson told ABC News that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement "is screening everything from Japan." However, screening does not entail testing all the seafood. all the testing of the seafood. In fact, the FDA inspects less than 2 percent of seafood, according to Winona Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch.

"FDA couldn't possibly with existing staff test all of the food that's being imported," Hauter said. "They inspect less than 2 percent of seafood. Their resources are really stretched."

Since screening, the FDA confirmed finding three food products from Japan that contained radioactive isotopes, although they were "all too low to cause adverse events."

So far, the FDA said that every piece of seafood that has been imported to the United States is safe.

Offshore from the Fukushima plant, the seawater is now testing at levels off the charts -- 7.5 million times more radioactive than the legal limit.

"I can't go out to fish because of the radiation," one Japanese fisherman told ABC News. "I cannot do anything."

But another fisherman said it was a "bad rumor" that the fish was unsafe to eat.

"The fish are totally fine, I believe," he said.

Because of the elevated levels, the Japanese government also announced on Tuesday that it will, for the first time, enact radiation safety standards for fish.

"We're deeply sorry for discharging the radiated water," said Japan's chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano on Monday, "but it was necessary to prevent spreading higher radiated water into the ocean."

Even though radiation levels become diluted in large bodies of water, officials tested a sample of sand lance fish, often used for bait, and found that the species contained nearly double the levels of iodine 131 and cesium 137. The new regulation caps fish radiation levels at the same amount as vegetables—up to 2,000 bequerels of iodine 131 per kilogram.

Edano said that government will strictly monitor the seafood and move forward after officials understand the full impact of the dumping.

Japan exported about $557 million in food and agriculture products to the U.S. in 2010, and an additional $235 million in seafood. The top imports are snack foods, scallops, wine and beer, processed fruit and vegetables, herbal tea, vegetable oils, and coffee.

But in comparison with other major exporting countries, the amount Japan sends to the United States is relatively small. Less than 4 percent of all American food imports come from Japan and less than 1 percent of the total fish Americans consume comes from Japan, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Even with the elevated radiation levels, Nicholas Fisher, professor of marine sciences at State University of New York at Stony Brook, said Americans are simply worrying too much because the radiation numbers are still below levels that could pose immediate danger.

"There have been 20,000 people killed by a tsunami and you hardly hear about that anymore, but you hear about this radiation hyper-anxiety," said Fisher. "I understand because they're anxious about something they don't understand. If they understood it, they'd be less concerned."

If people understood radiation, Fisher said that they would know that the levels are not a cause for worry – not yet at least.

"Those levels are not to the point where you'd get sick and die from eating the fish, but you probably shouldn't consume a lot of them," said Fisher. "The cesium levels are still such that you could consume about 35 pounds of that fish per year before you'd have any possible problems."

"I'd still want to see more complete quantitative data on the levels because right now, it's few and far between," said Fisher.

About 99 percent of radioactivity in the ocean is natural, and the remaining 1 percent has been attributed to humans.

Fisher said that iodine radiation has an eight-day half-life, and therefore, dissipates quickly in the fish. Seaweed is more likely to have higher levels of concentrated radiation than the surrounding water.

"We're living with a legacy of the great Z science fiction movies, where the innocent frog wanders through the radioactive cloud and becomes a horrible monster," said Fisher. "People are naturally skeptical."

But still, Fisher said he'd refrain from seafood from that area, just to be extra cautious.

"Under the worst circumstances, radioactivity can be genuinely dangerous, but I believe the reality is that, in marine systems, it's less of a concern."

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