Tourists are well advised to avoid altogether Tokyo and the whole north-east of Japan, although visiting Osaka – Kyoto – Nara area, i.e. Kansai, and south-east remain safe as of today, provided extreme caution is paid to food origin. This can prove tricky as tourists usually eat out and Japanese cuisine, one of the best in the world, takes a large place in the tourist experience. However, the authorities’ mismanagement of the Fukushima crisis brought down a culinary disaster with half of the country’s fresh produce turned into nuclear waste distributed nationwide, and TEPCO managed to pollute the Pacific Ocean to such an extent that anything from it, including of course sushi, should be out of anyone’s diet whose life expectancy is higher than the next five years. I highly recommend renting a place with a kitchen and making your own food with utmost care to labelling. Most of all, leave your children at home. If visiting Japan still makes sense to you and you are taking all necessary precautions, keep in mind that your return flight will serve food from Japan with “unknown” origin on board, even if you are flying with a foreign airline. I strongly advise that you take your own food on-board whenever possible and complain to your airline about putting their flying staff and passengers at risk. If you think this is an exaggeration, picture yourself leaving Minsk just seven months after Chernobyl disaster contaminated the whole Belarus and being served local food on board.
On a recent trip to Europe flying with Lufthansa, I was amazed that not only Japanese but also the German crew was totally oblivious of this severe threat. After my explanation, a crew member was nice enough to serve me some remnants from their incoming flight, i.e. two frankfurters, four bananas and two oranges and some cheese and black bread which was all I ate during the 12 hour or so flight. Luckily for me, I was the only one to raise the issue this time – or I would have had nothing but orange or tomato juice to sustain me. Back to Japan, I was concerned while eating spinach, a radio-friendly vegetable, especially as some onigiri rice balls labelled in Japanese were available during the flight and some sushi rolls and cold soba noodles were served with some wasabi / horse-radish paste as entrees – but a crew member reassured me that everything came from Germany notwithstanding. I took his word and try to sleep on it with the help of a Warsteiner beer, which amazed me by the simplicity of its content compared to the incredible brew which is served in Japan under the name “beer” (not even mentioning the various substitutes): malt, hops, yeast and water. Here is a picture of my frugal plate below. If you believe that their high potassium-40 content makes eating 4 bananas as dangerous as Fukushima rice and Ibaraki spinach, you are mistaken and should continue to learn about radioactivity.
In the wake of March 11, the French Embassy advised all their nationals who did not have any key business in staying in Japan to leave as soon as possible. Although the situation is worse and has spread to at least half the territory, the French have lifted their official warning and even back-pedalled in the ensuing panic they caused – however I consider that they were twice wrong: in the first place for their overreaction and now for their lack of reaction. It remains true that tourism is getting evermore dangerous in Japan, unless you are visiting some relatives who really know what they are doing when feeding you.
Concern about radioactive “food” in Japan always leads to a bigger picture of concern about food anywhere. As it turns out, the company that caters for Lufthansa is one of its subsidiaries called LSG Sky Chefs, which, according to Wikipedia:
“Since 1996 LSG Sky Chefs has received multiple Warning Letters by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because of the violation of sanitation standards in the processing of food for airlines.
The most recent warning by the FDA was issued on December 10, 2009, and addresses the results of inspections of the LGS Sky Chefs’ facility in Denver, Colorado, in September and October 2009. The FDA downgraded the facility status from Approved to Provisional. The FDA inspectors found dead and living cockroaches and other insects in many areas of the facility. In addition, they noted the following violations:
- employees prepared food with their bare hands or using unwashed gloves,
- water dripping from the ceiling on equipment and utensils,
- standing water in the garbage room,
- debris in ice pit, dairy cooler, dish machine area, and automatic cart wash area, and
- holes in wall surfaces creating areas for insect and vermin harborage.
The inspectors also noted improper handling and storage of cleaned utensils. Three swab sub samples collected from the floor in the hot kitchen area contained the Listeriosis causing pathogen Listeria monocytogenes. The FDA gave LSG Sky Chefs 30 days to remedy the deficiencies. In case the next FDA inspection should still expose problems, the facilities status to provide food to airlines would be revoked. On January 19, 2010, the Food and Drug Administration issued a follow-up letter informing LSG Sky Chefs that their Denver facility had passed the required re-inspection and had been restored immediately to “Approved” status since the company had taken action to resolve the issues cited by the FDA in their original notice dated December 10, 2009.”
I am quite certain that other airlines do not fare better and that Sky Chefs has been singled out only due to the fact that, according to Wikipedia, this company is the “world’s largest provider of airline catering”. Continental traveling was already dangerous due to the amount of X-ray and particle exposure, occasional crash and, well, sub-standard food ethics. Fukushima remains an eye-opener about the food industry hazards worldwide. Have a safe trip and buckle up your safety belt.