Food exports hit as Japan counts cost of disaster

The massive earthquake that sent a wall of water crashing into northeastern Japan two weeks ago is set to become the costliest natural disaster the world has ever seen, with Japan also struggling to reassure the world that its food exports are not tainted by radiation.

Yesterday, the US and Hong Kong became the first nations to halt food imports from areas affected by the radiation leaks from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which was damaged by the twin disasters. The US Food and Drug Administration said it would ban milk, vegetable and fruit from four areas in the vicinity of the stricken plant. With the relief and rebuilding effort underway across hundreds of miles of coastal areas, the Japanese government said the final bill may reach $309bn (£190bn). The 9-magnitude temblor, the tsunami that followed, and the nuclear crisis have cost thousands of lives and the economic effects could be far-reaching.

The cost of reconstruction will far exceed that of Japan's last major disaster, the Kobe quake in 1995, and likely more than double the $125bn price tag left by Hurricane Katrina when it devastated New Orleans in 2005. The projected cost would be the equivalent of six per cent of GDP in the world's third largest economy and strangle any immediate prospect of recovery in Japan.

Fears over the plant have hit food exports from Japan and sent its tourism industry into freefall. Chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano, the public face of the government during the disaster, pleaded with the world not to overreact: "We have measures in place that keep products with radiation above a certain level out of circulation. That means anything in circulation is safe."

The US imports less than five per cent of its food from Japan, but Hong Kong is a major customer and yesterday reported finding radioactivity levels in spinach and turnip samples up to 10 times over the safe limit. South Korea may follow and France has asked the EU to investigate radiation levels in Japanese food.