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Japanese dairy firms address consumer radiation concerns

By Ben Bouckley , 03-Feb-2012
Last updated on 03-Feb-2012 at 15:18 GMT

Despite low levels of cesium found, Meiji voluntarily recalled 400,000 cans of Meiji Step brand product in December
Despite low levels of cesium found, Meiji voluntarily recalled 400,000 cans of Meiji Step brand product in December

Top Japanese dairy companies have announced that they are set to begin screening products for radiation at around 180 factories, in response to growing consumer concerns about radioactivity levels in food.

Trade body the Japan Dairy Industry Association said that screening would begin soon at plants owned by its members in Tokyo and 16 prefectures in Eastern Europe, with the results provisionally scheduled for publication by the end of February.

Nineteen member companies subject to product checks for include Meiji Co (low levels of cesium were found in the firm’s Step infant formula, pictured, in December), Megmilk Snow Brand and Morinage Milk Industry Co.

The Japan Dairy Industry Association has pledged to disclose any levels of radioactive cesium found, factory names and production dates.

The safeguards follow the Fukushima nuclear disaster 11 months ago, and will complement existing checks by municipalities on raw milk before it is processed by factories; however, only a few producers now check milk after it has been processed.

Tougher radiation limits

Heightened exposure to radiation in the environment and food can damage DNA and cause leukemia and other cancers, to which infants are particularly susceptible.

The Japanese health and welfare ministry decided to strengthen food safety standards for milk from April, but legislators and industry have also faced growing public demand for more stringent screening.

When the new rules come into effect, milk will only be allowed to contain 50 becquerels per kilogram (or bq/kg, a measure of radioactivity), one quarter of the currently permitted level.

Limits for three other categories are 100bg/kg for general foodstuffs (including dairy products such as yogurt and cheese), 50bq/kg for ‘food items for babies’ – although there is talk of this being raised to 100bq/kg – and 10bq/kg for drinking water.

The Japanese Dairy Industry Association said it wanted to verify compliance with the new standards prior to their enforcement “to obtain adequate trust and confidence of our consumers”.

Last December radioactive cesium was found in milk powder produced by Meiji Holdings, heightening concerns that nuclear radiation was contaminating baby food.

Meiji’s probe – that turned-up the cesium traces – was triggered by a customer complaint, although the company insisted at the time that the formula in its 850g cans didn’t pose a health risk as radiation levels were within safe limits.

Chinese safety overhaul

China’s Ministry of Health announced plans this week to overhaul its current food standards before the end of 2015.

This news follows persistent public fears over food safety, and the death of an infant in early January, which was initially linked by media sources to products produced by NASDAQ-listed dairy firm Synutra International.

However, the firm said on January 20 that the government had confirmed that samples collected, both from the dead infant and the retail store in Jiangxi Province where the product was bought, were compliant with all 11 national standards and the child’s death was not food related.

According to the Ministry of Health's website, there are now 1,900 national standards, 1,200 local standards and 3,000 food industrial standards.

Within this timeframe, the government said it would also strive to revise food additive standards, food labels and food contaminants, biotoxin and pesticide residues.

The health ministry will also accelerate the formulation and modification of national standards for food safety, to stamp out inconsistencies and improve their scientific basis.