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One by One, Food Safety Agencies Address Radiation

On March 11 President Obama expressed his “deepest condolences” to the Japanese people for that day’s earthquake and tsunami. Later the same day he announced that he’d dispatched FEMA to Hawaii and other states and territories that might be impacted by coastal waves. Then the president went six days before saying anything about growing radiation risk from Japan.


He did say on March 17 that “harmful levels” of radiation were not expected to reach any U.S. states or territories in the Pacific, citing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  And he said U.S. public health authorities were not advising any precautionary measures “beyond staying informed.”

It’s not exactly a throwback to the days of the 331 atmospheric atomic bomb tests in the United States, when Washington’s policy was the less said, the better. 


But beside all the lengthy pronouncements stemming from the White House during the past two weeks, including subjects ranging from design criteria for the poster for the annual Easter Egg hunt to multiple statements on Brazil and Chili, telling Americans exactly what was going on at Japan’s smoking nuclear power station was clearly not on the priority list.

To be sure, President Obama and the White House had plenty to do during the past two weeks, what with a South American trip, bombing North Africa, and planning for May’s trip to Europe.   

But even through Fukushima is far more distant from the White House than was Three Mile Island, so too was another president’s response to a potential nuclear plant disaster.

On Sunday, April 1, 1979, President and Mrs. Carter took daughter Amy to Washington’s First Baptist Church for services.  Afterward, they dropped off Amy at the White House and boarded the Marine One helicopter for the 40-minute ride to Middletown, PA.

There they met Pennsylvania’s Republican Gov. Richard Thornburgh and Harold R. Denton from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The four took a bus into the “hot” zone around Three Mile Island and went to the control room, where they remained for 13 minutes.

When they returned to Middletown, President Carter, a veteran of the U.S. Navy’s nuclear submarine fleet, gave some reassuring remarks to an anxious nation.

By contrast to President Carter’s centralized approach to the Three Mile Island accident, response by the U.S. government to Japan’s earthquake and tsunami-damaged nuclear reactors has clearly been more dispersed.

A week after the dual natural disasters, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack issued a statement addressing the potential food safety aspects of the ongoing nuclear disaster, which he called “the recent tragedies in Japan.”  

On March 18, Secretary Vilsack said: “I know that there are many questions Americans might have about the terrible tragedies in Japan. I want to reassure the American public that at this time we have no reason to suggest that any of our meat, poultry, or processed egg products is unsafe for consumption due to the recent events in Japan. 

“Our food imports from Japan are quite limited. What we do import must meet the safety standards of this country. We monitor and inspect imports to insure compliance with those standards. Should any risk with imports arise, we have procedures and processes in place to identify problems and deal with them. While we continue to offer aid and assistance to the Japanese we do not intend to lose sight of our core mission which is make sure our food remains safe, abundant, and affordable.”

His statement failed to mention the words “radiation” or “nuclear.”  At the time of Vilsack’s statement, USDA did release general information on radiation and the U.S. government’s assessment of the situation in Japan, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s assurance that food was safe.

Meat, poultry, and egg exports from Japan to the U.S. were suspended about a year prior to the earthquake for unrelated issues.

Four days later, on March 22, FDA came out with a statement on radiation.

It begins by noting that Japan has already acted to protect food safety. 

“The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare has ordered a stop to the sale of raw milk, spinach and kakina, another local vegetable, from Fukushima prefecture, and of spinach and kakina from Ibaraki, Tochigi and Gunma prefectures,” FDA said.

FDA’s says its screening at U.S. borders “will remain vigilant and will be augmented with radiation screening of shipments,” it says.

“Standard operating procedure requires shippers to submit and FDA to receive prior notice of a shipment before the arrival of any shipments of FDA-regulated food/feed products,” the agency says.  

The Prior Notice Center (PNC) enables FDA to stop these products upon arrival at the U.S. border or before they are distributed in U.S. commerce when a credible threat is identified for any shipment.

“United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers routinely use radiation detection equipment to screen food imports, cargo, and travelers,” FDA says.

The border patrol screening helps identify and resolve potential safety or security risks. 

FDA is working with CBP to determine if their Automated Targeting System can assist in identifying shipments of FDA-regulated products, other than food, originating from Japan before they arrive so that these shipments can be better targeted for examination. 

FDA’s import staff is reviewing each shipment of regulated goods originating from Japan to determine if it should be examined and sampled or released.

FDA continues to say that food reaching the United States from Japan is safe because of the safety measures that are in place.

U.S. government reassurance comes as the Tokyo city government just found 210 bacquerels per kilogram of iodine-131 in a northern water facility.  That’s more than double the amount permissible for infants, but still safe for adults.

Experts suspect rainfall during periods of higher atmospheric radiation levels is responsible for the uptick.

In Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, experts say minuscule amounts of radiation from Japan have reached America’s highest peaks.  The amounts, however, are 100,000 times less than surrounding rocks.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta also put up a new radiation section on its website, including promotion of a radiation emergency preparedness conference planned months ago that ends today in Atlanta.

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