Radiation In Japan's Food Supply Chain Not A Worry For U.S. Consumers

The FDA expects no radiation risk to the U.S. food supply, as Japanese exported foods comprise less than 4 percent of all U.S. imports.

Melville, NY: The world watches with concerned interest as Japan begins its third week digging out of the rubble left by the earthquake and tsunami that caused the largest nuclear-energy crisis since the 1986 Chernobyl accident. The damage is estimated at about $307 billion. As Japan mourns its 27,000 dead and missing countrymen, it looks to itself and to other countries for safe food and water for its citizens.

World governments are reacting, and the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and India are among countries putting import restrictions on Japanese products like fruit, vegetables, dairy items and seafood. Seafood – Japan’s top food export – accounts for 45 percent of all food products Japan sells to outside markets. The U.S. imported $236 million of fish products from Japan in 2010, representing 1.6 percent of total fish imports, according to Japan External Trade Organization.

The FDA reports it expects no radiation risk to the U.S. food supply, as Japanese exported foods comprise less than 4 percent of all U.S. imports. Dairy products account for only 0.1 percent of all FDA-regulated products from Japan. Radiation doses are low and pose no threat to human health unless tainted products are consumed in abnormally excessive quantities, reports the FDA. The most common imports to the U.S. from Japan are seafood, snack foods, and processed fruits and vegetables.

As of March 22, 2011, the FDA halted imports into the U.S. of dairy products and produce from the area where a nuclear reactor is still leaking radiation. Other Japanese imports – like seafood – will be screened for radiation before being sold to the public. The FDA reports that no products are being exported from the affected area.

The world’s third-largest economy, Japan purchases more corn from the U.S. than any other country; nearly 600 million bushels in 2010 were bought for processing into livestock feed, according to an AP report. With the disruption to numerous components within the nation’s critical infrastructure – such as electricity outages – it is likely that corn imports will drop because of limited electrical power available to process the grains into livestock feed. This lack of feed – coupled with cold temperatures – is expected to result in animal deaths.

With its processing and distribution systems disrupted, and radiation seeping into the food chain from the crippled power plants, Japan will have to rely on increased food imports for its 125 million citizens, note analysts. This could open the door wider to Japan’s traditional suppliers.

The country is likely to import packaged goods rather than bulk or unprocessed products, again because of the damaged infrastructure. According to analysts, the Japanese government has requested bottled water manufacturers to increase production.

The Japan External Trade Organization reports that Japan’s food imports in 2009 totaled $53.5 billion – topped by seafood purchases at $13 billion, representing 24.4 percent of all food imports. Meat imports totaled $9.7 billion – or 18.2 percent of all food imports – followed by animal-feed grains and processed flour products at $8.2 billion, or 15.4 percent of all food imports. The country is the world’s third-largest importer of food products, with pork, tuna, bananas, and coffee beans topping the list of food imports. Conversely, Japan exported $3.2 billion in food products in 2009.

Although the country operates its own major rice fields, it also buys about 350,000 metric tons of rice annually from California, accounting for about 25 percent of California’s annual rice production. Analysts were not concerned about a food shortage, as Japan maintains large rice reserves.

As conditions in the country continue to fluctuate, analysts acknowledge uncertainty about what Japan will need, when it will need it, and how much it will need. Two of the 12 ports handling bulk commodity shipments were damaged, while smaller ports in the northeast region were severely damaged, reports the AP. Because of the rolling blackouts imposed by the Japanese government to conserve power, the ports’ ability to unload cargo shipments will be affected and goods may have to unload in other locations. In any event, deliveries will be hampered due to damaged roads.

Analysts note that once affected Japanese ports begin operation again, the focus will be on rebuilding and the country will see an increased demand for food imports and for products required for the process of rebuilding the country’s damaged infrastructure.