Food produced around the Fukushima nuclear disaster site could be making its way on to British shelves because of loopholes in safety rules, The Independent can reveal.
Products contaminated by radiation, including tea, noodles and chocolate bars, have already been exported from Japan under the cover of false labelling by fraudsters.
In pictures: How the fraud works
Experts warned that Britain’s food regulations were not strong enough to prevent these kinds of contaminated products – which are fraudulently marked as coming from radiation-free regions of Japan – from entering the UK. This raises the prospect of mildly carcinogenic ingredients entering the food system.
The alarm is being sounded after Taiwanese investigators uncovered more than 100 radioactive food products which had been produced in Fukushima but falsely packaged to give their origin as Tokyo.
There is no firm evidence that any radioactive food has entered the UK, but experts say there is a risk, and products could already have arrived.
“I suspect what has happened in Taiwan might well have already happened in the UK. Intermediary supply chain middlemen can buy food in bulk and package and label as they like – before shipping them to the UK,” said Alastair Marke, a fellow at the Royal Society of Arts and principal adviser in London to Shantalla, a food safety consultancy.
“Although we have adopted one of the world’s most comprehensive and stringent traceability laws, the UK has virtually no control over how foods are processed, manufactured and packaged in Japan.”
Any food produced for export in the “danger zone” around Fukushima, in northern Japan, must be declared as such so that it can be tested for radiation before leaving the country and again when it reaches the UK border.
But the system is predicated on honest certification and evidence has emerged that fraudsters are abusing the situation by passing Fukushima foods off as coming from elsewhere in the country.
The reactor meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant in 2011 sent substantial amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere. Some of this has landed on the surface of foods such as fruits, vegetables and animal feed, while radioactivity can build up within produce over time as “radionuclides” are transferred through soil into crops or animals.
Nearly 300 products, including tea, noodles and chocolate bars were found recently and recalled from Taiwanese shops after it emerged they were produced near Fukushima, not near Tokyo as the packaging claimed.
Experts say there is little to stop similar products being shipped to the UK. “There is a risk that radioactive food is getting on to the UK market,” said Eoghan Daly, of the Institute of Food Safety Integrity and Protection. The potential health impact of consuming contaminated food is relatively low but not entirely negligible, he added.
According to the World Health Organisation, the biggest danger comes from the radioactive isotope caesium, which can linger in the system for decades and increases the risk of cancer – although experts say that the level of caesium in radioactive foods from the Fukushima region are typically very low.
Meanwhile, radioactive iodine increases the risk of thyroid cancer, particularly in children, but quickly decays, meaning that the majority of the radiation has gone within a fortnight.