The Consumer Impact of the Earthquake in Japan

March 23, 2011

The recent tragedy in Japan will affect the global food supply and might just be the event that triggers the reverse of our dependence on Asia for cheap foods.

The recent tragedy in Japan will affect the global food supply, and might just be the event that triggers the reverse of our dependence on Asia for cheap foods. Americans might complain about the increase in food prices, but will pay for the safety of their food supply. In a current quick poll on, 82 percent of those who have already taken the survey report that since the earthquake/tsunami in Japan they are concerned about the safety of foods coming from this part of the world. Three in four people surveyed are concerned about radioactivity and 65 percent are concerned about general food safety issues. Over half the respondents say that as a result of the earthquake foods imported from Asia will be more expensive; but only one out of four say there will be stricter standards for safety and more testing. On our Supermarket Guru Fan Page on Facebook, Kerry Stessel says “We need new toxcicty labels on all imported food products.”

This past Monday, the government ordered Fukushima prefecture, the site of the troubled nuclear power plant, as well as several neighboring prefectures to suspend shipments of spinach and rapeseed after radiation exceeding regulated safety limits was detected in some produce. The government also banned sales of raw milk produced in this region. On our end, the FDA is monitoring Japanese food for radiation contamination which “may include increased and targeted product sampling,” Seafood, snack foods and processed produce from Japan represents less than four percent of all food imported into the U.S. and products already in the country are safe because they shipped prior to the incident.

But this story may have much more impact than that. Over the past few years, foods from China have been a concern to retailers and consumers alike, and we can expect that food from Japan may also join the list. However, there's no doubt that the seafood supply will be directly affected. The length and degree of seafood supply disruptions from Japan and China to the U.S. will clearly take time to determine, however, Asian seafood exports won't likely be available in the U.S. for a significant period. 
Reports from Bloomberg news and other health officials say that exposing food to radiation doesn’t always make it harmful to human health. Fruit and vegetables are often irradiated to increase their shelf life; but foods that contain radioactive nuclei (subatomic particles that emit gamma rays), can be toxic and may cause cancer.

There is insufficient data available to say how far the effects of the radiation will linger. What we do know is that radioactive elements are heavy and don’t remain airborne very long, therefore soil may be contaminated within a 10-mile radius, posing a danger for human occupation for at least three decades. Food production from an area 10 miles to 20 miles away may be unsafe.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Americans consume more than 16 pounds of seafood per capita, and the 2010 Dietary Guidelines recommended that we increase our consumption for health reasons.  Canada's Agri-Food Trade Service reports that China alone, the world's top producer and consumer of fish and seafood products, exported more than $11.5 billion in fish and seafood products in 2009 - 20% of it to the U.S. Japanese combined exports of fisheries, farm and forestry products rose 13.1% to $2.38 billion - 35% of it to the U.S.
Shoppers will see more “produced or made in America” signage as supermarkets start to promote domestically produced replacement foods - like Gulf shrimp instead of shrimp from China, or U.S. farm raised tilapia.  If supplies remain short, prices should remain higher longer, and the focus on the integrity of fish sourcing and other imports will only intensify.