The eels didn’t manage to slip through.
After a haul turned up last Friday off the coast of Ibaraki Prefecture, with levels of radioactivity double the current standards set for vegetables, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano announced that the nation’s authorities would begin regulating the radiation levels in seafood.
Water samples taken Tuesday from concrete pits outside the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station showed radiation 5 million times the legal limits – down from a Saturday reading of 7.5 million, according to an official with the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which runs the plant. Groundwater outside reactor No. 6 was similarly affected. The levels dropped steeply just several dozen meters out, but still remained several hundred thousand times above legal limits.
Radioactive iodine-131 is at the center of health experts’ concerns. The element iodine, in its non-radioactive isotopic form, is an essential part of thyroid regulation in the human body. Chronic exposure to its radioactive form, such as iodine-129 or iodine-131, can, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, cause thyroid problems such as nodules or cancer. Iodine-131 loses half its radiation every eight days and is further diluted by active ocean waters. Still – it’s making its way into seafood at levels exceeding those the Japanese government have deemed safe for consumption.
The people of Japan – and even the United States – put tremendous faith in the standards set by the Japanese government, a sentiment expressed repeatedly by the vendors at a recent seafood show in Boston. Ippei Nakao of Medallion Foods Inc., manning a booth at the event said, "Consumers believe Japanese food is safe because Japanese standards are very strict."
His co-exhibitor Terry Hasegawa of True World Foods – a major importer of wholesale seafood – concurs. "Everything we're getting from Japan is being inspected by the Japanese government and the health department and also the USDC and the FDA are working very closely to inspect our fish. I'm standing here all day long and not many people are asking questions about radiation in the fish. I don't think people are worried too much."
Additionally, the deep-water fish – like tuna and halibut - that generally make it to U.S. restaurants are far enough offshore that contamination is not yet thought to be a risk.
Even if that level of scrutiny was proven insufficient, supply chain expert and CEO of Demand Foresight Gene Tanski says that post-Gulf oil spill scrutiny of seafood, both imported and domestic, would disallow tainted Japanese seafood to reach American tables. Not only do the high-end chefs and purveyors dishing it out to consumers have a reputation to at stake – the fish just simply wouldn’t make it past the testing phase.
Tanski says, “"If you think about Japanese imports from a safety point of view, given the fact that there was this bright spotlight of concern because of nuclear radiation, the FDA is going to be very concerned that the food coming in is safe. That's not to say that fish with slight radiation won't come in, but chances are that they'll put it aside and say, 'Hey – not this crate.'"
He also notes that while the risk at this point - at least to Americans - is minimal, the economic impact on Japan could be quite severe. Tanksi says, "Japan exports two to two and a half billion dollars worth of seafood to the U.S. every year. Twenty percent of that comes from the affected area. The risk may not increase, but the prices are certainly likely to."
The batch of radioactive eels that triggered the new set of strictures was subsequently destroyed, but they've certainly put a new appetite for awareness on the menu.
CNN Wire Staff and Bob Crowley contributed to this report