Is Hong Kong's air pollution a bigger health threat than last year's radiation leakage from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant? That was the question posed at a recent dinner held in Hong Kong to convince the public that food from Japan is free from radiation and safe for consumption.
Hiromi Iijima, a food exporter from Ibaraki prefecture, one of a dozen producers at the event, said: 'My nose allergies are acting up here; I'm not used to the Hong Kong environment. In Ibaraki, we don't have this problem of air pollution.'
Jeremy Gordon, editor at industry publication World Nuclear News, said that, aside from wild mushrooms and boar, which both take their nutrients from contaminated topsoil, the risks from eating Ibaraki food products were non-existent.
'The contamination is from caesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years so is going to stick around for a while. However, it does not accumulate in the human body and therefore is not linked to any health effect - this is based on 25 years of studying Chernobyl. The other contaminant from the accident was iodine-131, which has a half-life of only eight days and so is all gone now,' Gordon said.
He added that the background radiation, 'as a comparative risk, is far less dangerous than exposing yourself to the air pollution in Tokyo, or Hong Kong for that matter, which definitely has an observable effect on people's health.'
The dinner was organised by the Ibaraki Prefectural Government and Toshiyuki Kiuchi, the owner of Kiuchi Brewery, which produces Hitachino Nest Beer.
'I felt like I wanted to do something about the reputation of my prefecture where my brewery is, and to dispel some myths about Japanese products. Everyone's paranoid about something nowadays,' Kiuchi said.
Ibaraki, located 200 kilometres from Fukushima prefecture, is the second-largest prefecture for food production in Japan, supplying Tokyo and the rest of the country with fruit and vegetables. The food market has been hit heavily since last year's tsunami and the fear of having food tainted with radiation still lingers, even in Japan.
Local delicacies such as pickles, natto (fermented beans) and slices of octopus marinated in rice vinegar, along with certificates in Japanese and English attesting to their official radiation-free status, were passed around the table to the media.
'Our food products are totally safe; we're eating this here with you,' said Kiyoshi Ishikawa, a food export adviser. 'It's just the immediate area near Fukushima that is not OK.'
Other food products from Ibaraki introduced that evening included organic rice, sake, sweet potatoes, Tsukamoto ama natto (sugared and roasted beans) and Noguchi tokutaro syoten tea. Some are available at Japanese supermarkets in Hong Kong.