Only 25% of Americans would feel comfortable buying and eating food imported from Japan in the wake of the radiation leaks at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant after the earthquake and tsunami in March, according to a survey presented last week at the 2011 Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) Annual Meeting & Food Expo.
Although 61% of survey respondents said that they felt “protected” by U.S. regulatory efforts to protect the food supply, three out of four still felt too apprehensive to consume food from Japan. In a report titled “Food, Fear, and Fury,” Aurora A. Saulo, PhD, extension specialist in food technology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, characterized respondents’ general feelings as “suspicious and nervous.” “Latent distrust remains even when (specific) concerns seem absent,” she said. “There does not seem [to be] anything that can be done to change people’s behavior right now.”
Radiation is something that American consumers particularly fear. Shaun Kennedy, director of the National Center for Food Protection and Defense (NCFPD) at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, notes that irradiation has been approved as a food safety measure for meat, poultry, and some produce. “But it’s not a market success, because producers are required to label their food as having been irradiated, and the public in general doesn’t know the difference between irradiating something and having it be radioactively contaminated,” he said.
About one-third of the food and agricultural products imported from Japan are seafood. “In many cases, that fish may not have actually come from anywhere near Japan…there are Japanese ships that fish of the coast of New Brunswick. And certain fish migrate, so even if they were caught off the coast of Fukushima, they might have just arrived,” Kennedy said. “For certain types of fish, like shellfish, it’s rational to say we shouldn’t be importing them from Japan right now, because they’re probably contaminated. But for all other fish, the FDA sampling program is more than sufficient.”
But consumers aren’t likely to agree with that any time soon. “The spinach market is still depressed from its prior high as a result of the 2006 E. coli outbreak,” Kennedy added. “It takes the consumer a long time to regain faith in a food that they don’t see as absolutely necessary.”
The survey of more than 200 Americans was conducted between May 20-23.