Updated on April 21, 2016
by Roz Cummins
“Never thought I’d see the day when the toolkit of a master sushi chef would include a carbon-steel single-bevel knife, a bamboo mat, and a handheld Geiger counter.”
– Trevor Corson, author, The Story of Sushi and The Secret Life of Lobsters
Many people want to know if it’s safe to eat seafood from Japan in light of the recent earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent release of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear power plant. They also want to know if the radiation that has crossed the ocean and has been found in milk in California and Washington – and in rainwater in Massachusetts – indicates that there will be repercussions for migratory fish and for the fish, shellfish, and seaweed caught or grown here in the U.S.
Keep in mind that this is a fast-moving story, and that the facts on the ground are changing every day, particularly with regard to the levels of radiation being released from the damaged nuclear power plant via both steam and the seawater used to cool the reactor.
The Short Answer
The main facts concerning U.S. seafood consumption in the aftermath of the radiation releases from the Fukushima plant are these:
1.) We import very little seafood from Japan. You can ask the wait staff where you are dining – or the sales staff where you are buying seafood – where they get the seafood that they serve or sell.
2.) According to Dr. Nicholas Fisher, Professor of Marine Science at Stony Brook University, there is currently very little chance that the radiation that has crossed the Pacific is accumulating in our food supplies at harmful levels.
The Long Answer
Here is a more expansive answer to the questions raised by the release of radiation from the plant, based upon information that I have been able to put together through both research and my interviews with experts:
Is there any danger posed by consuming seafood imported from Japan into the U.S.?
We in the U.S. import so little seafood from Japan that, generally speaking, there isn’t much of a risk of coming into contact with seafood that’s been affected by the radiation leaks. Some higher end sushi bars and seafood restaurants have sourced their fish from Japan in the past, but as Trevor Corson states in his piece for The Atlantic.com, “…any smart sushi restaurateurs in the West will be ensuring that their seafood comes from other places and will advertise the fact.”
You may want to make asking where and how the seafood being served at a restaurant was caught part of your dining protocol anyway, so let the wait staff know that this is very important to you. They should be able to provide this information.
By the way, Corson goes on to point out in his article that the future of sushi is threatened more by ongoing sustainability issues than the release of radiation: “…sushi has already been facing an existential crisis for some time, well before the earthquake and its tragic aftermath. We’ve been devouring so many of those industrially-harvested low-end fish – tuna, salmon, and unagi – and high-end trophy fish – bluefin in particular – that sushi hasn’t been a sustainable cuisine.”
How is contaminated seafood from Japan being prevented from entering the U.S.?
The FDA is taking action to prevent the distribution in the U.S. of any seafood that’s been exposed to radiation in Japan.
Here’s their policy regarding imported foods from the four Japanese prefectures closest to the Fukushima plant: “All milk and milk products and vegetables and fruits produced or manufactured from the four Japanese prefectures of Fukushima, Ibaraki, Tochigi, and Gunma will be detained upon entry into the United States. They will not be allowed to enter the U.S. food supply, unless shown to be free from radionuclide contamination, with the exception of the specific products restricted by the Government of Japan. Those products will be refused admission into the U.S.”
As far as seafood goes, “Other food products from this area, including seafood, although not subject to the Import Alert, will be diverted for testing by FDA before they can enter the food supply. FDA will also be monitoring and testing food products, including seafood, from other areas of Japan as appropriate.”
They go on to explain that few seafood products will be coming out of this area for some time to come: “Because of the heavy damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami to the region, there are little or no products… currently being exported from the affected area. Products generally travel by vessel, and the typical transit time for products to reach the U.S. is about 8 days.”
As of 4.8.11, the EPA states that results of their radiation tests “have detected low levels of radioactive material consistent with estimated releases from the damaged nuclear reactors. These detections were expected and the levels detected are far below levels of public-health concern.” Dr. Fisher put this into perspective by explaining that the instruments used to detect radioactivity are incredibly sensitive and can detect its presence at levels way below anything approaching a concentration that could be considered dangerous.
Is there any chance that radiation can cross the Pacific from Japan and damage our seafood and crops?
On 3/29/11, the FDA stated: “Seafood from the United States waters of the North Pacific is safe to eat. In the unlikely scenario that airborne pollutants could affect U.S. fishermen or fish landed in the U.S., FDA will work with NOAA to ensure frequent testing of seafood caught in those areas, and inspection of facilities that process and sell seafood from those areas.”
The FDA also stated on3/29/11 that, “At this time, there is no public health threat in the U.S. related to radiation exposure. FDA, together with other agencies, is carefully monitoring any possibility for distribution of radiation to the United States. At this time, theoretical models do not indicate that significant amounts of radiation will reach the U.S. coast or affect U.S. fishing waters…”
Radiation has now been detected in samples of milk from Spokane, Washington, but the EPA and FDA do not consider the levels to be dangerous.
On 3/30/11 the FDA and EPA issued a joint statement that detectable levels of iodine-131 were found in a screening sample of milk from Spokane, Washington.
They state that the tests “detected 0.8 pCi/L of iodine-131, which is more than 5,000 times lower than the Derived Intervention Level set by FDA. These types of findings are to be expected in the coming days and are far below levels of public health concern, including for infants and children. Iodine-131 has a very short half-life of approximately eight days, and the level detected in milk and milk products is therefore expected to drop relatively quickly.”
So, there are detectable levels that have crossed the ocean but which, according to the FDA, are not cause for concern.
We’ve established that the chances of encountering radiated seafood from Japan here in the U.S. are minimal, and – if you ask where the seafood you’re thinking of ordering is from – you should be able to avoid it all together.
But what about the seafood that’s available to the people in Japan?
As I cautioned previously, this is a fast-moving story, and the situation could change with the release of more radiation from the nuclear plant – either as steam or as seawater that’s been used to cool the plant. Given that caveat, here’s the current understanding:
In an article published in the New York Times on 3/19/11, author Mark McDonald discussed the damage to fishing ports near Tohoku, the coastal epicenter of the earthquake, and notes that Tsutomu Kosaka, the general manager of the Tsukiji fish market (the largest fish market in the world) says that the “brand” of the Tohoku fishery – famous for its scallops, seaweed, bonito, and shark’s fin, is doomed: “It’s not like the brand is just damaged for now – it’s over…” and McDonald notes that Kosaka’s sense of hopelessness is due more to “the outright destruction of fishing facilities in the north than from a possible poisoning of the fish.”
Some fish in Japan have been shown to be radioactive, and the Japanese government is taking steps to address this issue.
Seaweed from the coast of Japan – brown macroalgae in particular – could present a concern, according to Dr. Fisher. He explains that it takes up iodine at a level that is 10,000 times more concentrated than it is in sea water. This seaweed is harvested mostly to extract alginate, which is an additive used in products like toothpaste and ice cream. He says that the Japanese government should be monitoring the seaweed for the presence of radiation. When I asked Dr. Fisher if there was a chance that radioactivity could be concentrated in brown macroalgae that grows on the West Coast of the U.S.A., he said that he would think that if it were present at all it would be present at levels “so vanishingly low” that it should not be a concern.
As I stated earlier, this situation is one that is changing every day. Given the limitations on the imports from Japan and the testing by the FDA, the current understanding is that it is safe to eat seafood. New data could trigger new recommendations, however, so keep checking for the latest news as time goes on.