The Call

With contamination in Japan, is sushi off the menu?

With contamination in Japan, is sushi off the menu?

By Scott Rosenstein

Contamination reports out of Japan have prompted more than just Jeremy Piven to second-guess their consumption of sushi and other Japanese delicacies. With many countries including the United States, Hong Kong, Australia, and Singapore banning selected food imports from Japan, fears of a global food supply riddled with radioactivity have been on the rise. The World Health Organization has characterized the situation as "serious." As a result, Japanese food is suffering from a burgeoning branding crisis.

Continued contamination revelations, including recent reports of plutonium in the soil around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station and trace amounts of radioactive cesium and iodine reaching the United States, will likely exacerbate the situation. For Japan, the resulting economic dislocation will be a small (agriculture only constitutes 1.1 percent of the country’s GDP) but notable addition to the long list of challenges it faces.

But should we all stop eating food associated with Japan? When it comes to food safety, emotion sometimes trumps reality. The United States, for example, imports less than two percent of its seafood from Japan. The Food and Drug Administration is now monitoring those imports closely, and many restaurants have already halted whatever remaining food orders they have with Japan. France, Germany, India, China, and South Korea have announced similar measures. These are prudent steps to take. But whether they reassure consumers remains to be seen. Even if none of the food on diners’ plates is from Japan, ongoing fears could dent the popularity of Japanese-style cuisine worldwide.

Either way, the risk of elevated trade tensions remains low. As long as the import bans are temporary and not perceived as blanket restrictions intended to favor domestic producers, it is unlikely that conflict will arise. China, for example, consumes a significant proportion of Japan’s food exports — much of which is sold at a premium to high-end consumers with promises of quality and safety. Beijing will need to appear proactive for the sake of public opinion at home, but it won’t be easy to replace Japanese imports domestically, making the government less likely to do anything drastic. China probably also wants to maintain good trade relations with its neighbor in order to increase exports of Chinese-made food into Japan, particularly if food shortages there worsen or if consumer confidence in Japanese food takes a serious hit. (Considering China’s poor record on food safety, however, confidence in Japan would need to plunge considerably for the latter scenario to play out.)

To be sure, health concerns about the issue are not unfounded. The majority of illness stemming from the Chernobyl accident in 1986 resulted from contaminated dairy consumption. Simply instructing children not to drink milk from affected areas in Chernobyl would have drastically reduced the suffering there. Continued monitoring of the situation in Japan therefore remains critical. But we are still very far from Chernobyl levels of contamination. And as the headline risk about food safety in Japan continues to rise, so too does the possibility that much more immediate emergencies in Japan will receive proportionately less international attention.  

Scott Rosenstein is an analyst in Eurasia Group’s Global Health practice.