TOKYO // Japan banned cattle shipments from Fukushima prefecture yesterday because of fears of radiation-tainted beef in the country's meat distribution chain, four months after a nuclear accident in the region.
The central government told the Fukushima governor, Yuhei Sato, to "halt shipments of all cattle in Fukushima to meatpacking factories", Yukio Edano, the government spokesman, said.
Around 650 beef cattle are thought to have been contaminated with radioactive caesium in hay they had eaten before being sent to meat processing facilities across Japan since late March, with some of the meat consumed.
Beef from the cattle, which were mainly from Fukushima, was shipped to most of Japan's 47 prefectures.
The hay was apparently contaminated by the release of radioactive materials from the Fukushima nuclear plant after it was hit by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, which triggered reactor meltdowns at the facility.
In the latest food scare associated with the disaster, cows from farms outside the 20-kilometre Fukushima nuclear no-go zone were found to have eaten contaminated hay, triggering fears that radioactive fallout reached a wider area than thought.
On Monday, Fukushima officials said they detected up to 157,000 becquerels of radioactive caesium per kilogram in straw used at the farms - about 520 times the government-designated limit.
The government has sought to reassure the public that there is no immediate health threat from eating standard quantities of beef, even if it is tainted.
Tens of thousands of people remain evacuated from homes, businesses and farms inside the no-go area, and the plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company faces massive compensation costs.
Japan has not set up a centralised system to check vegetables and meat for radiation, relying instead on testing carried out by local authorities.
Yesterday the agriculture minister, Michihiko Kano, said his ministry would carry out checks across the country on rice straw for beef cattle.
Mr Edano said affected farmers would be compensated for economic losses as a result of the ban. "We will take every possible measure to ensure appropriate compensation for cattle farmers."
Revelations that contaminated food has reached markets have again raised food safety fears after radioactive materials were found in a range of goods including green vegetables, tea, milk and fish.
In the aftermath of the crisis at the Fukushima plant, the government restricted shipments of milk, spinach and other vegetables before lifting them, saying radiation was below safety levels.
Tea grown south of Tokyo was found to also be well over the government limit for contamination.
Workers are still battling to stabilise the nuclear power plant, which continues emitting radiation four months after the meltdown.
Japan's prime minister, Naoto Kan, said yesterday that the first phase of efforts to bring the crisis at the nuclear plant under control was on schedule and near completion.
Mr Kan's government and Tokyo Power have worked to bring the crippled reactors to a state of stable cooling in July and cold shutdown by January.
Japan was expected to officially announce later yesterday the completion of the first stage now that a water circulation system has been established to stabilise cooling operations at the plant.