Short-term impact likely from Japan radiation fears

Jon Condon, 20/07/2011


MLA Japan region manager, Melanie BrockGrowing evidence of domestic Japanese beef contaminated with radiation is having some negative impact on consumer buying patterns, but the trend is likely to be only temporary, sources suggest. 

On July 11 Japanese authorities announced that high levels of radioactive cesium had been found in carcases from cattle sourced from Fukushima Prefecture, near the site of Japan’s nuclear power plant crisis. The discovery marked the first time Japan’s national standards for radioactive material had been exceeded in beef, since the Tsunami – although levels exceeding the standards had earlier been found in a range of other foodstuffs.

The cattle reportedly ate straw tainted with radioactive material. Initially, 143 affected animals were identified as having been processed at three separate abattoirs. Some of the product had found its way into the Japanese food supply. The number of processed cattle suspected of contamination has since risen to 648, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported on Monday.

The surfaces of all cattle shipped from Fukushima are now tested for radiation.

Last week, the Tokyo Metropolitan Wholesale market saw a 6.8pc and 10.4pc decline in the price of Japanese A3 and A4 grade Wagyu carcases after the announcement, reflecting increasing consumer concerns on the issue.

Meat and Livestock Australia Japan regional manager Melanie Brock said there was also some evidence of retail supermarket beef demand declines.

“While the overall economy remains flat, this beef demand trend is probably linked to some extent to the recent publicity about contamination – but I think the effect will be only temporary,” she said.

“It is likely to be a momentary outcome. The market will weather it, and move-on fairly quickly.”
Ms Brock said the Japanese consumer had always been conscious of food safety issues and place-of-origin in food commodities, and never had this been more important to Australia than over the past three months.

“When you buy milk in Japan, it is clearly marked, product of Hokkaido. Regionality is very important. But beef from the area directly affected by the Tsunami and its after-effects will be very difficult to sell, for a considerable time,” she said. “It’s very sad, having been up there, because it is going to put the local beef producer community under enormous pressure.”

The Australian beef industry planned to supply containers of Australian hay as a gesture of support for the local livestock industry, during its current period of hardship.

“It sends a message to the Japanese that we are thankful for their deep loyalty as a beef customer over a very long period, and it is our way of sharing a little of the burden, by giving a little bit back. The actual fiscal value is insignificant, but it is an important symbolic gesture,” Ms Brock said.

While the news about beef contamination was serious, there had already been a series of announcements about radiation affecting other foodstuffs, including seafood and vegetables.
“Their confidence about food, generally, is being undermined,” she said.   

MLA Japan marketing task force chairman, Lachie Hart, from Stockyard Beef, said there had been some unnecessary over-reaction to the situation among some Japanese government bodies, particularly those covering some school lunch programs which had banned all beef from their menus. Media reports on this had further undermined consumer confidence, Mr Hart said.

But Japan’s traceability systems meant it was not difficult to make clear distinctions between imported and domestic beef, and beef from different parts of Japan.

MLA Tokyo had since contacted the regional Government bodies involved, and had success in reversing their decision.

Mr Hart said his business had received no negative comment over the contamination issue from customers in Japan, suggesting it was very difficult to make distinctions between the contamination issue and the general state of trade into Japan at present, in terms of current dynamics in the market.

“We’re expecting fairly tough trading conditions into Japan to continue, and there is still a large amount of imported beef in stockpile in Japan, around 70,000 tonnes,” he said.

Hopefully that would decline as Japan enters its higher beef demand period, coming up in coming months. 


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