Fearful chatter over irradiated food has diminished in the 45 days since the devastating quake but significant logistical challenges stymie distribution of Japanese tea.
European import bans extend through June 30 and mandatory testing for irradiated food remain in place in many countries, but sea transport and power interruptions pose greater obstacles to Japanese tea growers and processors.
Disruptions to shipping are likely to raise prices and delays will cause fluctuations of inventory while power outages that slow production are expected to continue through April.
Small packages of Japanese tea sent by air to individuals in the U.S. and Canada are not experiencing delays, in fact, customers of O-Cha.com commenting on the TeaChat blog reported receiving tea shipped from Uji City, Kyoto, in three days. Five is more typical. O-Cha's office in Iwaki was destroyed by the quake, necessitating the move to Uji. Tea is air freighted in foil bags and often vacuum sealed reducing the possibility of airborne contamination.
No Tea Contaminated
No contaminated tea has been reported, according to Nozomu (Nez) Tokugawa who just returned to Kyoto, from Shizuoka, Japan's largest tea producing area. Tokugawa owns Chado-En, a tea importer and wholesaler/retailer located near San Francisco. He spoke to several authorities on behalf of World Tea News including the manager of the World Green Tea Association, representatives from the Japan Tea Exporter's Association as well as professors at the Shizuoka Research Center.
Dr. Yoriyuki Nakamura and Yutaka Koizumi from the Shizuoka Research Center are cautious to say anything because so little is known, Tokugawa reports. "They are relying on the daily reading from the Ministry of Education for radiation exposure," he says. Electricity in the tea-rich prefecture is supplied by a nuclear reactor similar to the damaged Fukushima complex.
"They annually produce a report on agricultural safety in the region since the opening of the plant," writes Tokugawa. The report should be released soon, but "we have no idea if the data will represent testing after 3/11."
"The two officials are confident of the safety of Japan's tea but concerned as to what they should do about calming world opinion," writes Tokugawa.
Virtually all of Japan's tea is grown and processed hundreds to thousands of kilometers south of Fukushima where damaged reactors continue to emit radioactive particles into the air and water. Efforts to contain the leaks were hampered by repeated setbacks. Tokyo Electric Power Co. Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, told reporters last week that it will take six to nine months to resolve. He explained the initial critical step, which will take about three months, is to steadily bring down the level of leaking radiation. Only after that, he said, can efforts begin to prepare the plant's four troubled reactors for a cold shutdown.
The warmer regions have completed their first harvest and the plucking of tea in the prefecture's cooler regions began this week. Processing is underway in the entire region, says Tokugawa.
"I met with the Kotaro Tanimoto of the Japan Tea Exporter Association to get a handle on the export situation," says Tokugawa. Shippers currently are required to certify the tea as to region and year of harvest. "It is very time consuming," says Tanimoto.
"Some of his carriers shipping to Europe have refused to accept shipments," reports Tokugawa, but their concern is over delays due to radiation detection policies in response to anti-terrorism concerns — not unsafe cargo. A ship with even the slightest contamination may forever trip sensors at ports worldwide, subjecting it to lengthy and costly delays. Removing radioactive particles is an expensive process. The Association is hesitant to provide radiation testing because of its cost and long term impact of such testing, says Tanimoto.
Global shipping company APL, headquartered in Australia, is the first container carrier to undertake large scale cargo testing at Yokohama. Scans are performed on 200 containers a day. Modern container ships hold as many as 18,000 TEUs (20-foot containers). APL has ordered its ships to remain at least 200 nautical miles from Fukushima to avoid the possibility of contamination by air or seawater.
Floating debris from the tsunami is another concern. The flotsam is so extensive that Japan was forced to change its coastal shipping routes, diverting all craft of less than 499 gross tons away from the Pacific coastal route for safety. Japan operates 5,600 ships for domestic transportation of which 4,500 are smaller than 499 tons.
While 45 percent of Japan's overall tea production is in Shizuoka, a crop last year valued at 70 billion yen ($855 million) — the prefecture also distributes 60 percent of Japan's tea through an extensive transportation network. Japan's biggest port at Yokohama was damaged during the quake and power outages have since limited its capacity causing some tea shipments to be diverted to less efficient port facilities. Kobe is one alternate. Another is Kagoshima on the Island of Kyushu. Gardens in Yami-shinden, Kumamoto and Kagoshima are west and upwind of the damaged reactors. Kagoshima, the second largest growing region at 25,000 metric tons, is the same distance from Fukushima as New York is to Colorado.
In mid March electricity was rationed with rolling outages of 3 to 6 hours to avoid massive blackouts in Tokyo. The capital and eight other prefectures including Shizuoka were divided into five groups that alternated power use, a practice expected to continue through April.
Service is gradually returning to normal. On Monday East Japan Railway Co. restarted services on the Tohoku bullet train between Tokyo and Sendai. A power outage stopped both north and south-bound trains 15 minutes after service resumed but both are now running. Last week the Tohoku Electric Power Co. was able to forgo rolling blackouts for the first time since the quake. The Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) estimates that closing the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant created a daily shortage of about 10 million kilowatts in greater Tokyo.
The impact has been minor on tea processing facilities as most are remote from the northern prefectures where rationing is prevalent. Shortages are expected to ease after April but may later emerge as a problem in the summer months when usage peaks. Japan initially lost 25 percent of its electrical capacity but has since restored most power generating facilities to capacity.
Koji Nonaka, Manager of the World Green Tea Association in Shizuoka, remained "very cautious about saying anything good or bad about the tea crop in any region," reports Tokugawa. The association says they must be considerate of all members, Shizuoka, because of their power plants already does regular food safety testing while other tea regions do not have similar plants or ongoing testing. Therefore due to the conservative nature of the Japanese, making a positive comment about one area, without mention of another could create an unsubstantiated concern, Tokugawa explained.
The first of Japan's five harvests is the most important as it generally accounts for almost half the yearly total. Most of the 94,000 metric tons produced in 2009 were consumed domestically with fewer than 10 percent exported. An estimated 400 tons of tea are grown in the northern prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima where the largest concentrations of radioactive Iodine and Cesium were detected.
Tokugawa says he has "roots in Hiroshima, and lost both family and friends to nuclear radiation." He and Donna Tokugawa launched a fundraising effort immediately after the quake called Sakura Karigane: Help Japan Blossom "to find a way to help the Japanese people overcome this catastrophic pain."
In April Japan and the United States agreed to create a public-private partnership, under Tokyo's guidance, to help rebuild communities devastated the quake and tsunami. Standard & Poors now estimates damage from the quake, tsunami and nuclear disaster at between $245 and $490 billion.
"Some of his carriers shipping to Europe have refused to accept shipments," reports Nozomu (Nez) Tokugawa, "but their concern is over delays due to radiation detection policies in response to anti-terrorism concerns — not unsafe cargo."