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Japanese Butcher Serves Up 'Cesium Beef'

Wed, 05/02/2012 - 8:51am

TOKYO, May 2 (Kyodo) — On the afternoon of March 11, exactly one year after last year's Great East Japan Earthquake, a group of around 30 people were invited to gather at a 12-story building a few blocks away from the bustling streets of the Shinjuku district in Tokyo.

In one of the rooms, the guests, including couples with children and middle-aged men, gathered at a table to be served hamburger steaks hot out of the pan.

What appeared to be a lunch on a quiet Sunday afternoon came with a twist, however.

"This one is 6 becquerels," said Mitsuhiro Anada, 40, who was the host, referring to the level of radioactive cesium in the food. "Please feel to say no, if you don't want to eat it. We've got some cesium-free items as well."

Anada runs Mooton Family, a meat processing company, with his wife in northern Iwate Prefecture, where they relocated 16 years ago from Tokyo.

He called on customers who had bought hams, hamburgers and sausages through mail order from his company to take part in a "gathering to taste cesium beef."

The main item was hamburger steaks and stew, both made of beef in which traces of radioactive cesium has been detected. But both items showed readings far below the government's provisionally set limit of 500 becquerels per kilogram.

Anada said, "I would like consumers to think about what safety means, by providing them with numerical data." That was the idea behind the unusual event, according to Anada.

He has been adamant about using pastured Iwate beef for his products, avoiding meat from livestock raised on imported formula feed.

"Beef fed on wild grass should be safer and taste richer," said Anada, who has been producing hams and other meat products without relying on chemical seasoning or additives.

It was in late September that he received a call from a livestock farmer he buys meat from. He was told: "Cesium has been detected in the beef. It's lower than the provisionally approved level but what do you want us to do?"

While Iwate Prefecture does not share a border with Fukushima, where a major nuclear power plant was crippled in the disaster, radioactive cesium was found in beef from cows raised there in late July and shipments from the entire prefecture were halted shortly afterwards.

The shipment ban was later lifted. The prefecture stepped up inspections of shipments and found almost all of them were free of cesium. Among the limited shipments found positive was the beef stock Anada was going to buy.

Anada suspected it was positive because of grass the animals may have eaten while grazing in the mountains. He thus checked some grass and found it contained cesium.

"I was particular about organic farming but that attitude turned out to work against me," he said.

Anada said he was concerned about the livestock farmers he has long been doing business with, and felt that if he did not buy the stock, other buyers would drive the price sharply down in the market.

Since last September, he has purchased three head of cattle from the farmers at the regular price, paying a total of roughly 1 million yen.

He then sent a portion of the delivered meat for radiation checks. The results came in showing 10 to 60 Bq -- lower than the provisional limit of 500 Bq.

Since the readings were below the government-designated limit for radioactive contamination, selling the meat was allowed. But Anada said it troubled him to just put the meat on the market without letting consumers know how much cesium it contained.

Anada, who had been keen on publicizing the ingredients he uses and how he makes his products even before Fukushima, said he did not feel it was acceptable just to release details convenient to the producer but cover up anything negative. "Is that how it should be?" he asked.

At the cesium beef-tasting event, participants expressed mixed reactions.

"Radioactive substances exist in nature, so I'm not worried," said a dentist in his 40s who came with his primary school daughter. "It's a matter of your attitude." He ate beef stew, but he picked a cesium-free hamburger steak for his daughter, he said.

A company employee said, "I ate it because this was a rare opportunity I was invited to but I would never go all the way myself to make a purchase."

At around the same time, Anada started selling on the Internet hamburger steaks with a warning that 6 Bq of radioactive cesium per kilogram had been detected. Only six packs have been sold after one month, he said.

The spewing of radioactive cesium as a result of the nuclear accident cannot be undone. It is impossible to check all foodstuffs on the market for radiation and in reality, those with less than the government-set limit are on the market.

Cardboard boxes with the beef Anada bought from his business partners have gradually piled up in the freezer unit at his meat factory. He has about 750 kilograms of meat, equivalent to some 4,500 hamburgers, unsold in stock, he said.

Anada said, "By showing recognizable numerical data, I hope everyone will think about how they should face radioactive materials (in food) and live."

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