Tracking Down Radioactive Food Imports

Emilio Godoy*

HAVANA TIMES, April 5 (IPS) — Rather belatedly, Latin America is beginning to test products imported from Japan to check that they are not contaminated with radioactivity from the Fukushima nuclear power station that was severely damaged by the Mar. 11 earthquake and tsunami.

Authorities in Mexico and Brazil have begun to monitor foods and health supplies from the Asian country for radiation.

“Japan is not a major food exporter, but monitoring is necessary because of the problem of exposure to radiation,” Alejandro Calvillo, head of the Mexican organization El Poder del Consumidor (Consumer Power), told IPS.

The National Commission for Nuclear Safety and Safeguards (CNSNS) and the Federal Commission for Protection against Health Risks (COFEPRIS) ordered the tax authority to check for radiation traces in foods and health supplies from Japan at the customs barriers in the ports of Manzanillo and Veracruz and at Mexico City’s international airport.

A shipment of Japanese processed foods arrived Sunday at Manzanillo, in the southwestern state of Colima, the main point of entry in Mexico for Japanese products.

In Brazil, the Health Surveillance Agency (ANVISA), attached to the Health Ministry, and the Agriculture Ministry agreed to monitor from this Monday all flours, dough for breads and biscuits, fish, algae, pasta and sake, the traditional rice wine, imported from Japan.

A resolution published Apr. 1 in Brazil’s official gazette stipulates that every food product or input must bear a certificate from the Japanese authorities vouching they do not contain radiation levels higher than the international standards in the Codex Alimentarius, jointly established by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

In 2010, Mexican exports to Japan amounted to four billion dollars, compared to imports worth 15 billion dollars, among which food imports were less than two percent, according to statistics from ProMéxico, a government institution promoting trade and investment in the country.

COFEPRIS records indicate that 25 companies import health supplies from abroad, and five companies import food from Japan. However, Mexico is not buying milk, vegetables or fresh fruit from Japan, as the Asian country has stopped exporting them, due to the risk of exposure to high radiation levels from the unfolding nuclear crisis in Fukushima, 240 kilometres north of Tokyo.

A Japan-Mexico Economic Partnership Agreement has been in effect since April 2005, to promote trade and facilitate mutual investment.

In 2010, Brazil imported Japanese goods to a value of seven billion dollars, mostly industrial products and automobile parts, according to government figures. But it bought less than 100 million dollars’ worth of food, nearly all of it directed at the country’s 1.5 million Asian immigrants and their descendants.

The Brazilian authorities also inspected flights from Japan, to prevent passengers from bringing in food. The measure is intended to calm the population, along with the argument that only a small amount of food is imported from Japan. The last food shipment from Japan took place in February, before the disaster.

Furthermore, there are no direct flights from Japan to Brazil, so passengers have been monitored at their stopovers on the way to Brazil.

The union of Agriculture Ministry inspectors demanded safety measures against possible contamination hazards from inspecting containers from Japan.

Meanwhile, Japan suspended exports of milk and vegetables, but it fears unjustified trade boycotts, and has sent information to the World Trade Organization (WTO) to prevent that from happening.

There is an unfortunate precedent in Mexico for buying foods contaminated with sources of radiation.

In 1988, the now defunct state National Company of People’s Subsistence (CONASUPO) distributed 2,436 tons of milk powder contaminated with Caesium-137, which is toxic to human health. The milk had been exposed to radioactive materials following the April 1986 nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, in the former Soviet Republic of Ukraine.

The company was able to recall or otherwise account for only 1,497 tonnes, and the whereabouts of the rest of the milk powder is unknown. It was purchased from the Irish Dairy Board. The scandal was recorded in the 1997 book “Caso CONASUPO: la leche radiaoactiva” (The CONASUPO Case: Radioactive Milk) by journalist Guillermo Zamora.

“In Mexico, such things could happen again,” said Calvillo, who was head of Greenpeace Mexico at the time, and joined protests against the milk powder purchase. “That’s why vigilance is essential,” he stressed.

Meanwhile CNSNS, which comes under the Energy Secretariat (ministry), has not found high levels of radiation along Mexico’s Pacific coast, brought from Fukushima by ocean currents that first touch beaches in the west of the United States.

The nuclear safety agency monitored radioactivity levels Mar. 17-18 at Ensenada, in the northwestern state of Baja California, and found they were one percent higher than normal.

Similar measurements carried out by the commission Mar. 21 in the town of La Paz, in the adjacent state of Baja California Sur, detected radioactivity two percent above the normal level.

The ministry of the interior said these levels “do not represent any risk to the Mexican population,” and that monitoring would continue. About 200 radioactivity detectors are in use along Mexico’s shoreline.

* With additional reporting from Mario Osava in Rio de Janeiro.