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Sushi industry hurting from radiation scare

32 Comments
By Marco Werman

Not long after the March 11 earthquake in Japan, I heard about sushi panic. But not in Japan.

It seemed that restaurant goers in places like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles were rushing out to eat loads of raw fish before it was too late. Many of those sushi lovers speculated that radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant would contaminate the sea, the fish and then people.

That’s not an impossible scenario. But it’s highly unlikely.

Still, since March 11, the sushi industry in Japan has been in disarray. But why, when that scenario is unlikely?

If you want to know anything about sushi, Yoshitaka Narita is your guy. He’s the man widely credited with streamlining Japan’s sushi industry, bringing hygiene, pricing and marketing standards to the business.

The 54 year-old entrepreneur runs Tsukiji Sushi-ko. It’s named after Tokyo’s world famous Tsukiji fish market where he sources the majority of his produce.

“It’s the kitchen of Japan,” Narita told me.

Tsukiji is Japan’s biggest fish market, which also means it’s the world’s biggest. In the same way Japanese buyers show up on remote docks in Maine to score highly desirable North Atlantic bluefin tuna, buyers from around the globe in search for coveted Japanese horse mackerel also shop at Tsukiji.

Horse mackerel sold in Tsukiji in the morning could be on a plate in a New York sushi bar by night.

So first stop, Tsukiji. The morning I went, it was raining, but still busy. One fishmonger I met was hoarse from barking out to customers. I could barely get him to pause to make a few comments about the business, he was so busy.

It seemed odd that he was trying so hard because he seemed to have cornered his corner of the market with sushi-quality tuna. Samples of it were laid out in a glass case that looked more like a museum display than a refrigerator.

Still, his nerves about sales were understandable. When I asked him how concerned customers were about where their fish comes from now, he said, “a lot.”

He explained that right after March 11, his own sales were down by about 50 percent. “Now it’s only down about 30 percent,” he said, and jumped right on another prospective buyer before ignoring me.

The good news is that elsewhere in the Tsukiji market, business also seemed to be picking up.

I met Yoshiyaki Saito, 60 years-old. He’s been in the business for 40 years, and runs the Saito Fish Co. He told me that after March 11, business was down sharply. But he said that was because of logistical problems: no gas, and roads were shut down.

But over time, he said, business came back. “My customers have faith,” he said, “that the Japanese government is inspecting all the fish sold in the market to make sure it’s not contaminated.”

Maybe it’s faith in the government. Maybe it’s belief in science.

“The ocean is so huge in terms of the amount of water in the ocean,” says David Brenner, director of Columbia University’s Center for Radiological Research in New York, “that any radioactivity in the ocean gets enormously diluted just by the amount of water in the ocean. And so the amount that would reach one through fish is actually very small indeed. It’s more an issue for the local rivers and streams near the Fukushima plant.”

That radioactive water could contaminate freshwater fish. More significantly, it could also — and has — contaminated crops.

“Things like broccoli, cauliflower, turnips, mushrooms,” says Brenner, “they’re actually the majority of the foods in Japan that are still slightly radioactive, and again only the ones that are being grown in the northeast of Japan near Fukushima.”

Still, the idea that fish from the sea might catch radiation like a cold — and pass it on to humans through sushi – is a powerful scenario that’s hard to ignore. And as a result, the sushi business continues to suffer.

Narita, the man who stays across the sushi industry possibly more than anyone in Japan, says that will take a long time for the sushi business to return to normal.

“And it’s not just because fish stocks have gone down,” he says. “The export side of the business has almost been paralyzed.” And Yoshitaka says “people’s confusion about radiation isn’t changing.”

It’s easy to understand why radiation continues to scare people. After all, the number of cancer deaths attributed to the Chernobyl disaster range from zero to tens of thousands. And it’s precisely the uncertainty of radiation’s effects on humans that’s most worrying for David Brenner of Columbia University.

“It’s not people getting a high dose of radiation from eating a piece of highly contaminated fish,” says Brenner. “It’s large amounts of people getting small amounts of radiation from eating foods that are way below the regulatory levels in terms of contamination over a generation or two, that’s really the long term issue that we face from Fukushima.”

The reality of the situation says Brenner is that we don’t really know what the long-term health consequences of that are going to be.

The immediate consequences for the Japanese fish diet, sushi especially, are also hard to analyze. Sushi is already in the crosshairs. Consumers of tuna are warned about mercury levels. And in this age of eating locally, raw and often exotic fish from far-flung parts of the world isn’t the most sustainable food choice.

So, sushi experts like Narita are concerned about the future of brand sushi.

Still, if you’re in Japan, go to the Tsukiji fish market. Just once, see what it’s like to taste barbecued eel in teriyaki sauce as close to the source as you’re likely to get.

You could eat the smell from the smoke alone. But once that first unagi kebab is in your mouth, the smoothness of the flesh and the slippery quality of the eel, well, it’s nothing like any eel that American sushi places typically offer.

One bite of eel from Tsukiji, and you can taste how much is at stake.

© Public Radio International

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.


32 Comments
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I'm confused now, isn't Daiichi NPP working on 100,000+ tons of radioactive contaminated water and some has gone into the ocean and alot of the radioactive hydrogen gas plumes from the explosions went there as well and probably still is going into the ocean because all the Daiichi reactors are not stable. I can understand the concern over seafood the fish eat the plankton which maybe radioactive there maybe hotspots on the seabed where seaweed grows. Just like there are hotspots on land, there are a lot of worries.

0 ( +3 / -2 )

Utrack, We shouldn't be surprised.... I am not a negative person but, I am more worried whats happening now vs what was happening 3 months ago. My experience, when ever big issues go " Underground" there is cause for worry and concern. Unlike the US, UK etc, no one is protesting demanding to know the detail. Instead a passive wait till they tell us approach. Will we ever get the detail ? No, not until people power kicks in....

1 ( +3 / -1 )

@ fabricij

I hear you, it does seem like this issue has gone underground.

0 ( +3 / -2 )

I have had sushi once since 3/11 and I used to have it like once every two weeks.

I don't know where it comes from and I don't want to "win" the radioactive isotope lottery.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

It’s not people getting a high dose of radiation from eating a piece of highly contaminated fish,” says Brenner. “It’s large amounts of people getting small amounts of radiation from eating foods that are way below the regulatory levels in terms of contamination over a generation or two, ...

Well, sort of, but we don't really know whether the "regulatory levels" are set correctly, and we don't really know what dose people are getting, since neither the testing of people nor the testing of fish is thorough. I think it's also true that some people are getting a high dose and some people are getting no dose, and nobody knows which he or she got. That doesn't lead to happy dining.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

Take your Geiger counter to the 回転寿司屋

2 ( +3 / -1 )

pretty dodgy article and a bit of a tsukiji lovefest. That eel would more than likely be from China than from Hamanako anyway.

Freshwater fish ARE actually the ones with the highest cesium readings up north and that includes Ayu. Following that, Halibut and other flat fish are very high, as a re rockfish.

“Things like broccoli, cauliflower, turnips, mushrooms,” says Brenner, “they’re actually the majority of the foods in Japan that are still slightly radioactive, and again only the ones that are being grown in the northeast of Japan near Fukushima.”

um no..Shiitake mushrooms have been found that are highly radioactive and these were grown indoors in Fukushima. Then leafy vegetables like Spinach and then crops like barley and wheat in Tochigi and Ibaragi.Then a bunch of fruit like plums and peaches,figs and loquats from Fukushima.

What is this still slightly radioactive rubbish? It isn't like Fukushima isn't still pumping up 10 MILLION bequerels an hour of radioactive substances. Turnips? lol

What he does point out is the danger of accumulated radiation.Nobody is saying a steak will necessarily kill you, especially if you are older, but cesium and plutonium and strontium in a glass of milk or yoghurt everyday, then cesium in the rice, cesium in the bread (wheat is showing high levels) cesium and iodine in the vegies and fish .. well it won't take a generation for kids especially to get a high accumulated dose.

5 ( +6 / -0 )

A lot of your fish on your sushi isn't even from Japan, so keep on eating without worries.

0 ( +3 / -2 )

For all those who don't have the magical believe that radiation can't harm them,or care about their children, the problem is with labeling. In Japan, fish must have it's origin labelled. BUT, I believe, any kind of processed fish(including sushi) doesn't have to have information where it is from. I went to buy deep fried iwashi, and it took 2 staff and a phone call to inform me it was from...Fukushima!

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Geiger counters might not work, farmboy recently posted Lab/Medical equipment would do a better job at detecting contamination or something to that effect. so I went looking and found this website.

International Medcom [ High-Quality Radiation Detection Instruments ], Has Handheld Surface Contamination Meter $675 USD and the External Probe Surface Contamination Monitor $875USD

Checkout the specs. http://www.medcom.com/exp.htm

1 ( +1 / -0 )

A lot of "ho-ing" and "humming" in this article. No facts and a strong desire for people to start eating sushi again. It sounds to me like their blaming the consumer for not knowing enough about radiation. We have to respect the consumer and what the market is saying. Pushing biased experts on us with no real stance on whether the fish is safe is hardly a reason to start wolfing down sushi.

We don't know the effects, at all, yet. But, head down to Tsukji and have an Unagi-kebab.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

"Horse mackerel sold in Tsukiji in the morning could be on a plate in a New York sushi bar by night."

From what I understand only the most exclusive sushi restaurants in NY order from Japan and even then the Japanese imports are limited. To say that the average restaurant in the US (or maybe anywhere outside of Japan) gets the majority of their sushi from Tsukiji is an overstatement.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

Pushing biased experts on us with no real stance on whether the fish is safe is hardly a reason to start wolfing down sushi.

Yes, but pushing biased anti-nuclear 'experts' on us with their own agenda is hardly reason to stop.

Is fish from Fukushima contaminated? I'm sure. What's the likelihood your fish comes from Fukushima? Pretty unlikely - it's a big ocean, and so much fish (especially cheaper fish) is imported into Japan. I personally don't feel much risk in eating sushi right now, but of course everyone is different.

-5 ( +0 / -5 )

"catch radiation like a cold"...who wrote this slop?

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Jforce said: No facts and a strong desire for people to start eating sushi again.

I agree. Suspicious... I have seen a few overly pro-Japan, pro-sushi / beef, biased articles (alledgedly) written by foreigners recently. eg: http://www.nypost.com/p/lifestyle/travel/reasons_why_tokyo_is_the_best_v7p9ZoJqhiTXWxZIrhs9PK

I wonder if someone`s paying them to write them.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

The problem is that the fish from Fukushima is being dragged in nets and brought ashore all over the place to beat the labelling.Same with Miyagi fish.You could buy fish from Mie and find that it is actually from Fukushima. A lot of the sanma and pretty much all of the katsuo is from that area from now on.The list of fish caught from Hokkaido down to at least Chiba that are contaminated is quite exensive.I have read some disturbing accounts of fishmongers in Kyoto deliberately mislabelling tohoku fish,but I try to stick to the facts.I think Sushi chains are likely more reputable than small sushi bars and fishmongers. A lot of fish sold in sushi shops here is imported and Sushiro chain recently released the origin of the fish it uses on its website.Some of the fish such as Mackerel are stated as "frozen: last year's catch" and yet amongst all the specific labelling there was the sushi equivalent of "kokusan" which is "Taken from the Pacific Ocean".....now when we are talking about Katsuo then we know that it is coming from the Fukushima/Miyagi area and a vey specific part of the Pacific Ocean. Sushiro origin list here: http://www.akindo-sushiro.co.jp/topics/index.php?c=GbY5sXx4e28e37584d4b Kura shushi; http://www.kura-corpo.co.jp/news/hygiene.html Kappa sushi: http://kappazushi.jp/menu/gensanti.php

6 ( +6 / -0 )

I wonder if someone`s paying them to write them.

Or... people have a different perspective than some of the posters here? Some here like to call other posters government/TEPCO shills because they disagree.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

If you look at the overall pattern of how the government and private industry is handling the radiation contamination of food, you have to be leery of everything said by both. The operating procedure so far by both government and industry has to been to ignore the possibility and probability of contamination until someone gets around to checking and waves the BS flag. Then the government slowly says…… weeellll…. maybe, we need to do more testing, and then comes the OMG, the levels are off the chart, and we need to ban this item. Through all this is deafening silence from the industry side. When is rice harvest?

2 ( +2 / -0 )

What he does point out is the danger of accumulated radiation

Radiation does not accumulate anymore than light does. What accumulates is RADIOACTIVE ISOTOPES and heavy metals. Its not the same thing. Not remotely. This site needs a large banner explaining this. We are exposed to radiation everyday naturally. But the radioactive isotopes we are talking about do not exist naturally. They float around and get in your body via dust and food, etc.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

People are fearful creatures especially in these soft times, it appears. Most notably in the nanny state social democratic world. Afraid of everything and needing big brother to care for them. We need more samurais and less wimps in this world so eat your sushi and stop worrying, unless you are eating fugu? In any event attention spans are short and history is forgotten so party on, world!

-7 ( +0 / -7 )

Or... people have a different perspective than some of the posters here? Some here like to call other posters government/TEPCO shills because they disagree.

Indeed. The 'corporate shill gambit' is a good indicator that the person using it has a weak argument.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Sushi industry hurting from radiation scare

It is not a 'scare'! It is real! There are no regulations or testing being done on seafood. No one knows where they come from or what the levels of contaminants are.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

not scared, I still eat sushi. otherwise we have to be scared for everything: rice, meat, fish, all fresh products. I just hope for the best.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

What is this still slightly radioactive rubbish? It isn't like Fukushima isn't still pumping up 10 MILLION bequerels an hour of radioactive substances

@osakadaz: 10 million becquerels (= .00001 terabecquerel) an hour is a trickle compared to previous releases. The total release, according to NISR about a month ago, is about a million million million becquerels in round figures.

The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) on June 6 revised the level of radioactivity of materials emitted from the crisis hit Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant from 370,000 terabecquerels to 850,000 terabecquerels. (Mainichi)

The contaminated water at the plant contains about the same amount (720,000 terabecquerels) of radioactivity as was released. You'd better hope that that's not busy leaking into the groundwater.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Yep, sure could go for a dozen or so plates of Sushi-Maru sushi (with a crab miso soup & large draft beer)....

1 ( +1 / -0 )

yeah Melguy! exactly. Tepco predicted earlier on that the groundwater was moving at an inch or so a yr..who knows with a ll the liquefaction.The isotopes in the water at the sea intake are still off the charts though.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Personally, I think you can get very sick from eating sushi in America, and it is much more expensive and should not be.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

@Farmboy I haven't eaten any fish since March 11 myself but here are some results of fish tested for anyone interested. http://www.jfa.maff.go.jp/e/inspection/index.html

2 ( +2 / -0 )

@Mountain: That page has a huge amount of data and shows that the Japanese are really doing a good job. Interesting.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Though I'm now back in Canada (where I live less than a 15minute drive from a nuclear power plant) I still wouldn't hesitate to eat any saltwater fish caught north or south of Fukushima. True, labelling is problematic, but I suppose the farther away the fish's origin from that area, the better the chances of it being untainted.

Either way, as has been said, it's the freshwater fish and any kind of shellfish from the northeast that one should be wary of.

And yes, there is definitely more Tsukiji-pandering in this article than there are actual facts about the radiation levels found in fish from Fukushima and surrounding areas.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I think having my fish with a hint of Strontium-90 makes it taste so much better. Having a half life of 28.9 years ensures it will be around for many generations of Japanese to come.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

I think having my fish with a hint of Strontium-90 makes it taste so much better.

True. I imagine the strontium kills bacteria, and the fish stays fresh longer as well. Radiation is a gift that keeps on giving.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

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