The full impact of the Japanese nuclear crisis remains to be seen, but the health risks posed by radioactive contamination are well documented. In 2006, the National Academies of Science issued a definitive report on radiation exposure that concluded that even low levels of radiation can cause human health problems, including cancer, heart disease, or immune disorders.
The United States imports around 80 percent of its seafood as well as an increasing share of its fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, the FDA inspects less than two percent of these imports, leaving consumers at risk to a host of food-borne issues, which now includes potential radioactivity.Radioactive emissions from Japan have been detected throughout the United States, from California to Colorado and as far east as Massachusetts. Monitors in the Carolinas have detected the presence of radioactive iodine, the first time this material had been detected there since the Chernobyl accident 25 years ago.
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A major avenue for exposure to radioactive contamination comes through food and water. Decades after the Chernobyl accident, the United Kingdom still maintains restrictions on large sectors of the country’s sheep production because radioactive cesium—dispersed through wind and rain—still contaminates grazing lands.
The U.S. imported around 150 million pounds of food from Japan in 2010, a small percentage of what Americans consumed, but not an insignificant amount. Imports from Japan included nearly 600,000 pounds of crab and anchovies and nearly 5 million gallons of bottled water, soft drinks and other non-alcoholic beverages containing water, products that may be potentially higher risk if contamination continues to spread to the ocean and fresh water sources.
American consumers could be at risk through consumption of food products from other countries that experience radioactive fallout from the nuclear accident in Japan as well.
What We Recommend
- The FDA should immediately ban all food and water imports from Japan, expanding on the FDA’s original step of restricting imports of milk and produce from the region near the accident site.
- The EPA should increase its monitoring in the United States of air, water, precipitation, and milk for radiation.
- The data generated by this environmental monitoring should be used by the FDA and the USDA to design sampling programs for soil, water used for irrigation, livestock or crop production, crops including leafy greens, and meat and milk in areas of the United States that are affected by radiation.
- Congress should provide adequate funding for food inspection, both at home and abroad, instead of attempting to cut both USDA and FDA’s funding, which would weaken their ability to meet their current obligations even without the additional burden posed by this nuclear accident.
- Congress should rethink our agricultural and trade policies, which encourage importation of an increasing share of our food from countries with weak regulatory regimes. If radiation from Japan ends up affecting these countries’ food systems, regulators there will not have the tools to ensure that food production is safe.