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Food safety – clear conscience for Japan’s rice producers

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A farmer in Onami, was suspicious of the government’s findings that his rice crop was safe. He had his rice tested on his own and found that it contained a radioactive element in levels that exceeded government safety limits.

It just goes to show that first line of defense for food safety is always the clear conscience of the producer.

If a government agency had just approved one of your field crops during a safety inspection, but you still suspected that something was wrong, what would you do – harvest and ship the crop? Or undertake your own investigation?

It was a situation that rice farmers in Japan had to deal with recently, and they demonstrated that the best line of defense for food safety is the clear conscience of the farmer in the field – with a little help from the far-reaching influence of social media.

According to an article in the New York Times, rice farmers in the city of Onami, Japan, had reason to worry about their crops. The city is located just 35 miles northwest of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which suffered major damage after a 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami wrecked the facility on March 11, 2011. Partial meltdowns of the nuclear reactors led to radiation releases and evacuations.

Shortly thereafter, government inspectors in Japan declared Onami’s rice crop safe for consumption after testing two of the 154 rice farms around the city.

However, a farmer in Onami was suspicious of the government’s findings and wanted to ensure that the rice was safe for a visiting grandson. He had his rice tested on his own and found that it contained a radioactive element in levels that exceeded government safety limits. Subsequently other farmers also found unsafe levels of radioactive material in their crops.

The article doesn’t say what happened to the rice on the farm, or findings from a government decision to test 25,000 more rice farms in the area. If the rice were destroyed, which I assume it was, it didn’t have a significant impact on Japan’s usual production of around 8 million metric tons annually. Ninety-eight percent of Japan’s rice production is consumed domestically.

It is a sorry state of affairs when governments are willing to put its own citizens at risk to protect a domestic industry. But in this case, the clear conscience of a farmer broke the government deception. Then social media spread the word.

 “Since the accident, the government has tried to continue its business-as-usual approach of understating the severity of the accident and insisting that it knows best,” said Mitsuhiro Fukao, an economics professor at Keio University in Tokyo who has written about the loss of trust in government. “But the people are learning from the blogs, Twitter and Facebook that the government’s food-monitoring system is simply not credible.”

There are times when U.S. rules and regulations put extreme and undue burdens on agriculture. And our domestic agriculture has to constantly endure the assaults of environmental groups breathlessly waiting for a misstep.

It is a system that provides the world with a safe and secure supply of food. That said, the first line of defense is always the clear conscience of the producer. Not surprisingly, Japanese producers share that perspective, even though the cost has been severe. 

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