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Tokyo fish market reeling after nuclear food scare

By Karyn Poupee

TOKYO, Friday 25 March 2011 (AFP) - Tokyo's usually frantic Tsukiji fish market, the world's largest, usually hums with tourists but two weeks after a devastating earthquake and tsunami visitors are few and traders look worried.

Famous for its noisy pre-dawn tuna auctions and air of organised chaos, the market this week saw sellers standing idle as demand for seafood and other food products slid amid global worries about Japanese produce after a nuclear scare.

Traders blame a combination of massive supply disruptions from the wrecked northeast, and lower demand from a nervous Tokyo's half-empty hotels and restaurants.

Kenichiro Saito, who has been selling green "wakame" seaweed from hard-hit Miyagi and Iwate prefectures, said the massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami on March 11 had already changed his business forever.

"We know we won't be able to eat wakame from these areas for two or three years," Saito said. "So for now, we're getting supplies from Hokkaido -- at higher prices, of course, due to supply and demand."

Food safety fears have risen since radiation from the coastal Fukushima plant has been detected in vegetables and dairy products grown nearby, and after iodine levels in Tokyo tap water rose above levels safe for infants.

There has been no official warning about the impact on marine life, but operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. said Thursday that iodine-131 levels in the ocean near the plant were 145 times the legal level, Kyodo News reported.

Japan's government has shared data on higher radiation in food and water with the public, stressing that their consumption would not cause an immediate health risk -- but worries have grown among consumers.

"I'm not really that reassured," said 48-year-old shopper Kaori Toyama.

"I systematically check where the products I buy are coming from, and I am avoiding anything from Fukushima or Ibaraki," two of the four prefectures at the centre of the scare, she said.

"As for the government's remarks, sometimes I am rather confused. Now the government says the level of radioactivity in the water in Tokyo has gone down. I'm doubtful. In any case, I won't let the children drink any of it."

While the market has seen a broader drop, prices for some kinds of seafood have risen 20 to 30 percent since the disaster, due to a lack of supply from the hardest-hit areas, where several thousand ships were wrecked.

Tsukiji -- although most famous for its fish -- is also a wholesale market for other food products and it supplies many Tokyo shops and restaurants.

But the discovery of radioactive iodine and caesium in green vegetables and untreated milk from several prefectures near the stricken plant has prompted the EU, US and several other countries to restrict Japanese food imports.

Naoto Matsuzawa, who sells green vegetables, said he was nervous both about the safety of food and the impact the scare will have on his business, although he kept a brave face about it.

"My mind is not totally at ease, but I trust what the government says," Matsuzawa told AFP. "Everyone has to react calmly so that this situation does not deteriorate into some kind of panic, which would be the worst."

Fishmonger Hajime Watanabe, was confident the radiation wafting across the Pacific would not impact his trade, and said: "For now, we're not overly concerned because they are telling us there is no risk to humans."

Kyoko Tobita, 62, however, said although she could control the food she buys at the market she wondered how she can be sure that what she eats in restaurants will be safe.

"It's hard to know where the products come from," she said, adding that she believed the government's reassurances were "a bit too optimistic".

Farmers from the areas near the plant, meanwhile, are frustrated.

"If we'd done something wrong, we could understand all this, but this is worse, as we are the victims," said one Ibaraki spinach farmer, whose land was spared by the tsunami but whose business will be devastated by radiation leaks.

MySinchew 2011.03.25

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