Photo/IllutrationA Fukushima prefectural government worker advertises rice from his prefecture at a Tokyo commercial facility in November 2018. (Provided by the government of Fukushima Prefecture)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

FUKUSHIMA--Shipments of Fukushima rice have rebounded since the 2011 nuclear disaster, but Masao Matsukawa, a rice farmer in the prefecture, is not happy about the situation.

Before the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, most of the rice grown at Matsukawa’s farm in Sukagawa was sold for household use.

Now, the bulk of his annual harvest of 15 tons is designated for “industrial use,” mainly by convenience store and restaurant chains, and simply labeled “domestic product.”

“I am so sad about it all,” Matsukawa, 74, said. “I am so confident in the rice I grow, so I wish to sell it openly under the ‘Fukushima’ label.”

But rice from the northeastern prefecture is still struggling to reach pre-disaster levels for household use because of lingering consumer concerns about radiation.

The nuclear disaster took a heavy toll on the prices of Fukushima rice.

The “arm’s length price” of the rice, for direct transactions between marketing groups and wholesalers, was 10.4 percent below the national average for the 2014 harvest.

However, the price was only 3.0 percent below the national average for the 2018 harvest, according to preliminary figures.

The comeback has been driven by solid demand for industrial use rice for products sold at convenience stores and dishes served at restaurants.

According to a farm ministry survey, industrial use accounted for 65 percent of shipments of rice produced in Fukushima Prefecture in the year through June 2017, one of the highest ratios in Japan.

No comparable figures are available, though, for the pre-disaster period.

When the scope is limited to rice handled by the Fukushima Prefecture branch of the National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations, industrial use accounts for more than 80 percent of the shipments, up about 15 percentage points from pre-disaster levels, officials said.

“There is high demand for industrial use rice from Fukushima Prefecture, which is cheap for its taste,” one distributor said.

Industrial use rice often only carries a “domestic” label with no mention of the production area.

But labels on rice for household use usually show the production area. And consumers are still pulling back from Fukushima labels.

Rice of the Tennotsubu strain, a brand from Fukushima Prefecture that debuted in autumn 2011, was put on the shelves at a rice store in Tokyo last year, only to be withdrawn because of next-to-nothing sales.

“Products of Fukushima Prefecture, where the nuclear disaster has had lingering consequences, are not the first to be chosen,” the shopkeeper said.

Since 2012, all bags of rice produced in Fukushima Prefecture have been subject to the prefectural government’s blanket testing. The screening has cost about 6 billion yen ($54 million) annually.

Since August 2015, no rice has been found with radioactive substances exceeding the central government’s safety standards.

The prefectural government plans to switch to a sample testing, possibly with the 2020 harvest.

According to a Consumer Affairs Agency survey conducted in February, 12.5 percent of consumers are hesitant to buy products from Fukushima Prefecture because of possible radioactive content.

Although that percentage is the lowest since the survey started in 2013, it shows that aversion to Fukushima products remains.

In hopes of further reducing the ratio, the prefectural government in October began sending its workers to rice shops across Japan to advertise the taste and safety of Fukushima rice.