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Report from Tokyo: The Truth and Nothing But the Truth

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It is sometimes hard to know what is fact and what is fiction related to the Fukushima crisis. A lot of people I know here in Tokyo, myself included, are having trouble distinguishing between fact, fiction, and 'spin' with respect to the safety of air, water and food.

Can we believe the numbers coming out of the Daiichi Fukushima nuclear facility concerning radiation, especially when there is a clear track record by TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power) not telling the whole truth in the past?

It is now well known that TEPCO has experienced a number of safety violations and deliberately deceived the government and public over several decades. In 1978, control rods at one Fukushima reactor dislodged, but the accident was not reported because utilities were not required to notify the government of such accidents. In 2006, TEPCO did report that a negligible amount of radioactive steam seeped from the Fukushima plant and blew beyond the compound. It is no wonder that so many people have so little faith in the sanctity of the reports coming from them in this crisis.

The good news is there is much more non-TEPCO information coming out now regarding everything from radiated soil around the nuclear plant to radiation found far from the facility. The Associated Press reported on April 9th that Cesium-137 had been detected 15 to 35 miles (25 to 60 kilometers) away from the plant in amounts the scientific journal Nature suggests may not be fit for food production for decades. And at a press conference in Tokyo on April 11th, Greenpeace Japan called for the greater Fukushima area to be given official protective status, and for the evacuation of pregnant women and children from high risk areas in Fukushima City and Koriyama. So more of what we know is coming from multiple sources.

What worries me is what we do not know. Is it possible that food grown in radiated areas might become "mislabeled" and somehow bypass inspection channels? "Mislabeling" has happened many times in the recent past. For example, in 2006 Tokyo-based meatpacker Yamagataya passed 1.2 million tons of Brazilian chicken off as domestically grown chicken. The meat was subsequently served at 25 elementary and junior high schools. In 2008, Osaka-based trader Uohide and Kobe-based seafood wholesaler Shinko Gyorui sold at least 390,000 eels imported from China but labeled them as domestic products.

This is a fraction of what we should know. The farm ministry here in Japan uncovered 879 cases of incorrect labeling of food in 2008 but made public information on only approximately 10% of them, fearing "adverse effects on the firms that sold the products". In other words, purposely mislabeled food was kept out of the public eye to protect food packers and producers.

Will that happen again? Could it possibly happen with products from Fukushima? Your guess is as good as mine.

David Wagner is Director of Crisis Communications for Country Risk Solutions, a political risk consulting firm based in Connecticut. He has lived and worked in Japan for 25 years.