News 23.03.2011

EU relaxes regulations for products from Japan

  • Radiation

Absurd: the limits that apply to radioactive contamination for products imported from Japan to Germany are now less stringent than before the nuclear accident in Fukushima – and even less stringent than Japan’s own domestic limits. Through an emergency ordinance on 27 March, the EU raised the maximum permitted levels for caesium.

There is currently no cause for concern over radioactive food contamination in Europe: since the Fukushima disaster, Japan’s food exports – which have always been relatively minimal – have come to an almost complete standstill. To date, the consequences of the devastating nuclear accident have been borne primarily by the Japanese people. Nevertheless, measures are already being taken in Europe on precautionary grounds.

Limits intended for a nuclear state of emergency

In an emergency ordinance, the EU Commission has implemented measures from a regulation that has been on reserve since 1987. As a result regulations requiring an increased level of official controls for products from Japan have been in force since 27 March 2011. In addition, the ordinance introduced maximum levels for the short-lived radioactive isotope iodine-131, for which there had previously been no limit. At the same time, however, this regulation raised the maximum levels for the long-lived radioactive materials caesium-134 and caesium-137.

For most food from Japan, the new maximum permitted level of radioactive contamination, 1,250 becquerels/kilogram, is now twice as high as the previously applicable limit of 600 becquerels/kilogram. For infant food the new maximum level is 400 (previously 370), and for milk and dairy products, 1,000 (previously 370) becquerels/kilogram. For certain Japanese products that are only consumed in small quantities, such as fish oil or spices, contamination levels as high as 12,500 becquerels/kilogram are permitted – 20 times higher than the previous value.

Old and new limits for caesium-134 and caesium-137


Previous EU limit in becquerels per kilogram

New limit in becquerels per kilogram

Infant food



Dairy products



Liquid foodstuffs



Minor foodstuffs (for example, sweet potatoes, garlic, ginger, fish oil and spices, such as cinnamon and curry)



Other foodstuffs except minor foodstuffs



foodwatch calls for ban on food imports

The “reserve” regulation that provides for the higher limits now in force was created in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster. Its purpose is to establish maximum permitted levels of radioactive contamination that must be accepted in order to ensure adequate food supply for the population in the event of a “radiological emergency” in Europe. However, the current nuclear state of emergency is in Japan, not Europe, and there is no danger of food shortages for Europeans. A ban on imports, as was recently imposed by countries like South Korea and China in response to the dioxin scandal for pork from Germany, would be the simple and safe solution.

Previous limits for imports to the EU

The limits for radioactive caesium that apply in general to food imports to Europe are 370 becquerels per kilogram for infant food and 600 becquerels per kilogram for all other food. These are the maximum permitted levels established by the so-called “Chernobyl Regulation” No. 733/2008, which was extended in October 2009 to the year 2020. Although the EU Commission and German Federal Government are attempting to reason that these limits only apply to countries directly affected by the Chernobyl disaster and that, until now, there have been no radiation limits at all for food imports from Japan, the limits established in the “Chernobyl Regulation” have in fact been applied in practice for all food imports, including products from Japan.

foodwatch’s claims were confirmed by Manfred Kutzke, head of department at Hamburg’s Institute for Hygiene and the Environment, which is responsible for the monitoring of food imports: “The limits that now apply for products from Japan – and only for these – are now higher than prior to the nuclear accident. This means that if a mushroom imported from this region were found to have a contamination level of 800 becquerels per kilogram, it would not be rejected under the current regulations. Prior to Fukushima this product would have been rejected – just as products with similar levels of contamination from other regions would still be rejected today – on the grounds that it exceeded the limit of 600 becquerels per kilogram.” Furthermore, with the regulations currently in force in the European Union, it would be illegal to import a mushroom with a contamination level of 800 becquerels per kilogram from Russia – but completely legal to import one with the same level of contamination from Japan.

EU limits higher than domestic limits in Japan

A further consequence of the absurd EU polices: the limits that currently apply to radioactive food contamination in Europe are even less stringent than Japan’s own domestic limits. Theoretically, it would therefore be completely legal to export foodstuffs to Europe that were too highly contaminated to be sold in Japan. Although this possibility is purely theoretical and the actual risk for the European consumer is currently minimal, the regulations now in force do not represent an effective system of “preventive consumer protection”, which should be an “absolute priority” at the moment, according to Germany’s Minister of Consumer Protection Ilse Aigner. Furthermore, the Minister did not even bother to inform the public that the maximum permitted levels of radioactive contamination had been raised, effectively ignoring her duties of public disclosure.