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Japanese downplay radiation-tainted food

FUKUSHIMA, Japan – Japan announced the first signs that contamination from its tsunami-crippled nuclear complex has seeped into the food chain, saying that radiation levels in spinach and milk from farms near the facility exceeded government safety limits.

Japanese officials insisted that the small amounts of radiation – with traces also found in tap water in Tokyo – posed no immediate health threat, and said the situation at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, while still unpredictable, appeared to be coming under control after near-constant dousing of water to prevent spent fuel rods from burning up.

Emergency teams using an unmanned vehicle to spray water targeting the most at-risk of the plant’s six reactors launched a new round today – aimed at the plant’s Unit 4 – while preparing to switch power back on for the first time since a March 11 earthquake and tsunami knocked out the plant’s cooling systems.

However, there was no guarantee the cooling systems would still work, even once power was restored.

More than 11,600 people are still missing, and more than 452,000 are living in shelters.

The government’s top spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, said at a news conference Saturday that tainted milk and spinach were collected from several farms ranging from 20 miles to 75 miles away from the reactors.

After the announcements, Japanese officials immediately tried to calm an already-jittery public, saying the amounts detected were so small that people would have to consume unimaginable amounts to endanger their health.

“Can you imagine eating 1 kilogram of spinach every day for one year?” said State Secretary of Health Minister Yoko Komiyama.

An expert in the United States also said the risk from the radiation levels in food appeared limited and urged calm. “The most troubling thing to me is the fear that’s out of proportion to the risk,” said Dr. Henry Duval Royal, a radiologist at Washington University Medical School.