Fukushima fallout: Is your sushi safe?

Posted: 30 August 2023 | | No comments yet

Professor Chris Elliott talks sushi in his latest column for New Food, after the Japanese Government announced the release of wastewater from Fukushima into the Pacific Ocean.

chris' corner

It’s quite unusual for a fairly niche food like sushi to be in the news quite so much as it has been recently. Perhaps this is a little unfair, seeing as New Food recently reported it as the UK’s fastest growing lunchtime main meal.

This is something I had never expected. As long as I can remember, the Great British sandwich has been king. I suspect the switch in preferences is mainly due to the great taste of sushi, plus all of the perceived health benefits of the largely raw fish-based food. I recall that during my past trips to Japan, sushi was available everywhere – from small stores at railway stations to vending machines – but I never expected the craze to come this far west.

Unfortunately, the second news story about the Japanese delicacy was much less positive, and concerned the release of Fukushima wastewater into the Pacific Ocean. For those who don’t remember, there was a dreadful accident at the Fukushima nuclear facility back in 2011 when a tsunami caused a meltdown of the nuclear reactors there. At the time there were massive concerns about eating any seafood from the region, due to the potential risks of consuming radioactive waste.

But 12 years on the Japanese Government (supported by the opinion of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency) decided to release the 1.3 million metric tons of treated radioactive wastewater, enough to fill over 500 Olympic-size swimming pools, into the Pacific Ocean. This is far from an overnight operation, and it is likely to take decades to complete.

Many experts have looked at the data and agreed that there will be a miniscule additional amount of radioactivity present in fish caught in the Pacific and there will be no associated additional food safety risks.

I have to say I concur with this but often the court of public opinion and governments think very differently. China has immediately banned all imports of Japanese seafood, and there are concerns in a number of other countries and further import restrictions are likely. The Japanese government has promised to support their fishing industry financially due to any losses they suffer as a result of their decision.

Back in 2011 when the incident happened, there were a lot of rumours about Japanese fish and seafood being smuggled into countries and relabelled as coming from other regions. I actually saw evidence of this in some produce on sale in the UK. Is this likely to happen again? I think the answer is yes. To me, the decision and its downstream consequences will undoubtedly cause more country of origin fraud to occur when it comes to seafood. There will always be unscrupulous individuals and companies who will try and take advantage of disturbances in supply chains – and there is no more complicated or opaque supply chain than seafood, so opportunities will abound.

I already see that claims of ‘salmon from Norway’ are being heralded by a supermarket chain in China. Not surprising as the same reatiler was caught up in a previous sushi scandal when they were accused of selling fake sushi originating from a rather nasty fish species that causes severe diarrhoea when consumed.  They will not want a repeat of this PR disaster….

So would any of this information deter me from tucking into a portion of sushi? The answer is no. I see no food safety risk, and I like sushi a lot!

Is there a possibility of a sushi scandal somewhere in the world? The answer is yes. Keep your eyes peeled for another big headline soon…

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