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  • September 14, 2018
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Radiation myths are hurting Fukushima farmers. Can the Olympics help?

The prefecture's food labelling scheme hopes to restore consumer confidence

It has been seven years since the March 2011 Fukushima triple disaster — a major earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident — and the prefecture’s food producers continue to be afflicted. Historically known as a producer of premium quality produce, Fukushima’s food now suffers from a perception of radiation risk among consumers in Japan and throughout the world.

To counter such fears, Fukushima prefectural officials have established their own food testing and labelling scheme. The Fukushima “FGAP” program certifies rice, vegetables, fruits, beans, soba, wheat and mushrooms under the standards of the Global Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) system (the extra “F” stands for the prefecture’s name), but adopts stricter criteria regarding radiation levels.

The labelling program, launched in 2017, has gained wide media attention, and has heartened local farmers by providing a plan for the recovery. However, more time will be needed to assess consumer reactions as translated into sales. Now, officials hope the arrival of the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020 will provide a new spotlight for Fukushima’s wares.

An ongoing crisis

At a press conference in March, Fukushima Governor Masao Uchibori described the ongoing impact of the disaster.

“Even after seven years, the number of [government-designated] evacuees still amounts to close to 50,000,” he said, adding that the area had seen a dramatic population slump: “When we look at those residents returning to their hometowns, the percentage is still very low.”

Likewise, the drama of shutting down the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant continues to play out in the Japanese media, worsening the prefecture’s image in the minds of the public. Governor Uchibori described the situation: “Decommissioning will be a fight for a very long period of time,” he said.

“People still think that anything produced in Fukushima, they would not like to have”

The prefecture’s reputational damage extends to the agricultural sector. In the disaster’s wake, Japanese consumers, sticklers for quality, have turned away from Fukushima agricultural produce. Fukushima peaches, rice, and beef are seen as less desirable than those of other prefectures, and suffer a comparative price disadvantage. Around the world, 54 nations banned importation of food from Fukushima Prefecture shortly after the 2011 nuclear disaster.

“People who still think that anything produced in Fukushima, they would not like to have it, that [effect] has not actually disappeared,” the Governor groused during the March press conference.

Reputational repair

The Global Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) program was created in the late 1990s by several European supermarket chains and their major suppliers, aiming to bring uniformity to suppliers’ standards.

It has become the world’s leading farm certification scheme, and European agricultural product customers now regularly require GAP certification as a prerequisite for doing business.

In the wake of the 2011 triple disaster, Fukushima Prefecture created its own “FGAP” testing system that is modelled largely on GAP standards, but with stricter levels regarding radioactivity.

To receive FGAP certification, farmers must monitor rice paddy radiation levels and perform radiation screenings before shipment. They face a daunting 97 category checklist to receive certification, 30 categories of which address radioactivity.

To support these efforts, the Fukushima Prefectural Government covers expenses linked to FGAP certificate acquisition and renewal. TEPCO, owner of the failed Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, pays for about ¥5billion ($44.7million) of the estimated ¥6 billion ($53.6million) per year for blanket screening of produce, the remainder being paid for by state funds.

The aim of the FGAP is to restore consumer confidence in the prefecture’s produce. For example, Olympic officials, visiting Japan late last year as part of their Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games planning duties, were fed Fukushima produce in a bid to dispel fears over food from the prefecture, garnering significant domestic media attention.

A new opportunity

As Tokyo prepares for the July 2020 arrival of the sporting and media circus that is the Olympic Games, Fukushima is determined to seize the opportunity.

“The Olympic spotlight could bring priceless publicity”

Fukushima Prefectural officer Katsuhiro Furukawa described the aspirations for the FGAP program: “It is expected to dispel rumour damage. We anticipate that the number of new [business] transactions will increase due to the supply of ingredients to the Olympics and Paralympic Games.”

The prefectural government kicked off a campaign aimed at suppliers to the games in July with a meeting for about 100 hospitality industry figures expected to serve athletes and games officials.

And the Olympic spotlight could bring exactly the type of priceless publicity needed to restore the reputation of Fukushima foods in the longer term. Governor Uchibori explained the prefecture’s aims: “We are determined to create an environment in which Fukushima products can secure a place on store shelves even after the Olympics.”

Fukushima currently aims to lead Japanese prefectures with the greatest number of GAP certificates (of all varieties) held by farmers, and prefectural officials are targeting a four-fold increase of the current number by 2020.

So how much impact will the scheme have? For now, FGAP certification is providing negotiating power through proof of purity, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seeks to eliminate China’s ban on food imports from 10 of Japan’s 47 prefectures affected by the nuclear disaster.

By 2020, government experts and marketing professionals may have a better picture of just how much difference the FGAP label makes to individual consumers’ purchasing decisions. FGAP could provide Fukushima’s farmers with the evidence needed to move consumers away from buying into fear, and towards purchasing the prefecture’s produce once more. — Steve Ross

(Picture credit: hatake_s/Flickr)


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