News 30.03.2012

EU increases discrepancies in radiation protection

  • Radiation

Japan has drastically lowered its radiation limits for food. The new limits will come into force on 1 April 2012. The EU has adopted these new values – but only for products imported from Japan. Food from the EU, for example from the Chernobyl region, can still be sold with much higher levels of radioactive contamination – although there is no justification for such laxity.

In Japan significantly tighter limits on radioactive food contamination will come into force on 1 April. The new regulations prohibit the sale of products with contamination levels of more than 100 becquerels of caesium/kilogram (Bq/kg), representing a drastic reduction from the previous limit of 500 Bq/kg. Because the EU has decided to link its limits for food products imported from Japan to the current limits applicable in Japan, the European Commission has also adopted the more stringent values. However, the Commission has not changed the laxer limits for foods from other countries, including products from the Chernobyl region – meaning even greater inconsistency in the EU’s policy on radiation limits:

  • The levels of contamination (with reference to caesium) permitted by the EU for products imported from Japan are at least six times lower than its limits for all other foodstuffs. This means that the level of protection for the European population is much lower than Japan’s. In addition, varying standards apply in the EU: contaminated products from the Chernobyl region that exceed the applicable limits for imports from Japan by a factor of six can still be sold legally in Europe.
  • Limits for the radioactive contamination of foodstuffs in Belarus and Ukraine, countries severely affected by the Chernobyl disaster, are often much stricter than the EU limits. The result: foodstuffs that cannot be sold in these countries can be legally imported by EU countries and sold here.
  • The EU has different limit systems for normal and emergency situations. The precautionary measures for a nuclear disaster in Europe still originate from the post-Chernobyl period and were not re-evaluated after Fukushima. For such emergencies the EU has legal guidelines “on reserve”: the Council Regulation (Euratom) No. 3954/87, amended by Regulation No. 2218/89. If this regulation were put into force after an accident, the limits established for radioactive food contamination would be even laxer than those now in place: the allowable levels for caesium contamination in baby food, for example, would be 8 times higher than the maximum levels that will apply in Japan as of 1 April 2012, the levels for dairy products would be 20 times higher, the levels for other foods 12.5 times higher and the levels for drinking water as much as 100 times higher.

A uniform limit system

foodwatch has called upon the European Commission to introduce uniform limits that apply equally to normal and emergency situations and equally to all foodstuffs, regardless of country of origin. The current limits must be reduced at least to the levels that will be applied in Japan starting in April. The aim of these policies cannot be to allow as many foods as possible from the affected regions to be sold in Europe. Instead, policy-makers must do everything in their power to supply people with uncontaminated food from other regions. What justification can there be for the fact that, in the event of a nuclear accident, citizens of the EU would be less protected than the Japanese population?

No wiser after Fukushima

In Japan considerably stricter limits for the radionuclide caesium will come into force on 1 April 2012: 50 instead of the previous limit of 200 Bq/kg for dairy products, 10 instead of the previous 200 Bq/kg for drinking water, 50 Bq/kg for children’s foods (newly introduced) and 100 instead of the previous limit of 500 Bq/kg for other food. The EU is also adopting these tighter limits, but only for products imported from Japan. For other food less restrictive caesium limits apply: 370 Bq/kg for baby food and dairy products (equivalent to 7.4 times the Japanese limit) and 600 Bq/kg for other food (6 times the Japanese limit). In the case of a nuclear accident, even laxer limits from the “reserve” Council Regulation could come into force. These limits range from 400 to 1250 Bq/kg.

This means that Europe has learnt nothing from Fukushima: a whole year has past since the catastrophe in Japan, and the EU has yet to take any precautionary measures to maximise food safety in the event of a nuclear accident in Europe. Europe and Germany are not adequately prepared for a nuclear accident like the one in Japan. Europeans would be exposed to unconscionable health risks through the consumption of contaminated food.

Limits must be as low as possible

Several months ago foodwatch publicised its criticism of the limits in the EU and Japan, reasoning that the limits were excessively high because they tolerated a large number of fatalities. Exposure to radiation, no matter how minimal, is enough to trigger major illnesses and genetic disorders. Therefore, there are no “safe” limits. For this reason all limits must be set in accordance with the principle of impact minimisation: as low as possible without jeopardising the availability of food. With its most recent decisions, the European Commission has missed the opportunity to stem the chaos in its policies on radiation limits.

Safer than safe?

To explain its decision to tighten radiation limits, the Japanese government reasoned that, although the previous limits were low enough to “guarantee food safety”, the new limits were necessary for achieving “even more food safety”. This explanation is especially telling: it is an obvious attempt to conceal the fact that there are no “safe” limits for radioactive food contamination: the consumption of foodstuffs with radioactive contamination – even those with radiation levels well below the new limits – would result in radiation-induced deaths and serious diseases.

To date, foodwatch has not received any information which would indicate that contaminated Japanese foods are being sold in Europe.