Safe School-Lunch Movements

Many Japanese children eat school lunches. 98% of public elementary schools and 78% of public middle schools provide school lunches - more than 30,000 schools in all.[1] Particularly at the elementary and middle school levels, the majority of children go to public schools and only a small percentage of schools are private, accounting for 1% of elementary and 7% of middle schools in 2011.[2]

When the nuclear accident struck, the national government did not take much action in regard to the safety of school lunches. The earliest action by the Ministry of Education (Monbukagakusho) regarding school lunches was on April 5, but it was more concerned about the hygiene of school kitchens that had been used for evacuation after the earthquake and tsunami. Surprisingly, no mention of radiation contamination was made in the statement.[3]

Yet, with the discovery of highly contaminated beef - which came to be dubbed ‘caesium beef incident’ - the government could no longer ignore the issue. The ‘caesium beef was discovered in the summer of 2011 as contaminated above the government standards (than 500 Bq/ kg). The subsequent investigation revealed that close to three thousand cattle had already been slaughtered and sold on the market, many of them at major supermarket chains (Japan Business Press 2011). Furthermore, it became clear that part of it had already been used in school lunches in some cities.[4]

The authorities tried to play down the seriousness of the contamination. For instance, in Yokohama city where it was confirmed that ‘caesium beef' was used in the school lunch programme, the government issued a special newsletter on radiation contamination, which cited an expert saying that ‘beef contaminated with radioactive caesium over the standard stirred a controversy. However, the standard is not a clear boundary between danger and safety, so you don't have to worry about health impacts even when eating contaminated beef temporarily’.[5] The city's Education Council similarly downplayed the risk of radiation in food, saying that ‘even eating (caesium beef) one hundred times would equate to the same exposure as a single x-ray and there would be no impact on health’.[6] [7]

Despite these assurances, many parents became highly concerned about the possibility of contaminated school lunches. Beef did not seem to be the only food that was contaminated by the radioactive materials. Various foods including vegetables, milk, and processed foods like formula milk were found to be contaminated and to exceed government standards. The government test results showed 2% of tested rice, 3% of vegetables, 20% of mushrooms and mountain herbs, and 20% of seafood were contaminated above the government standards.11 By January 2012, 89,786 samples had been tested by prefectural governments, giving rise to the detection of 1,048 cases of contamination.[8] In more than 80 cases, the government ordered a stop to the shipment of food based on the Special Measures on Nuclear Disaster Act.[9]

There were also concerns as to whether the government standards were strict enough. The nuclear accident prompted the government to use what it called the ‘Provisional Regulatory Values’ (PRVs) as the radiation standards for foods; PRVs for caesium were 200 Bq/kg for drinking water, milk, and dairy products and 500 Bq/kg for vegetables, grain, meat, egg, fish, and others. While the PRVs became the critical tool for differentiating ‘contaminated food’ from ‘safe food,’ their legitimacy was tenuous from the beginning.[10] PRVs were taken from the Indices Relating to Limits on Food and Drink Ingestion by the Nuclear Safety Commission, which was seen as part of the so-called nuclear village (genshiryoku mura), the powerful alliances of utility industries and other private sectors, politicians, as well as technocrats and scientific experts that had promoted nuclear power as a safe and economic energy source for Japan.[11] Many citizens felt that the PRVs were too lax. Nonprofit organizations such as Foodwatch Japan reported that some countries affected by Chernobyl had adopted stricter standards, for example, the Ukraine whose caesium 137 standard for drinking water is 2 Bq/l. Belarus’ caesium 137 standard is also much lower, at 10 Bq/l for drinking water and 100 Bq/l for dairy.[12] Some experts also called for stricter values; for instance, professor Nagayama Junya at Kyushu University proposed caesium standards of 20 Bq/kg for dairy and milk and 50 Bq/kg for vegetables.[13] That some foodstuffs consumed in large quantities by the Japanese - fish and rice, for instance - did not have lower PRVs was also critiqued. Similar criticisms continued even after the new standards that were stricter than the original PRVs came into effect in 2012.

It is in this context that what I call the safe school-lunch movement emerged. By safe school-lunch movement, I mean the movement initiated by citizens trying to push the government to implement rigorous safety measures and schools to respond to potential radiation contamination in school lunches. After the accident, the safe school-lunch movement was neither unified nor centralized, and I use the term to refer to the many localized groups that addressed potential radiation contamination of school lunches. Before the accident, there had been a movement to improve the quality of school lunches, but in this context, I am referring solely to the groups emerging after the accident and dealing specifically with radioactive materials. These are parents - mostly mothers, but also some fathers - that started to raise concerns over the need to ensure the safety of school lunches.

The safe school-lunch movement’s main focus was to advocate the institutionalized measurement of food contamination levels in school lunch programmes. In response to this pressure, several municipal governments started measuring the ingredients’ radiation levels. For instance, an Asahi Shimbun newspaper article appearing in July 2011 listed several municipalities that were conducting tests including Yokohama city, Kawasaki city, Maebashi city, Musashino city, Kyoto city and Shibuya and Setagaya wards in Tokyo. In November 2011, Fukushima city started testing school lunches, the first in the prefecture.[14]

Even when the measurement programme nominally started, the movement had to be vigilant, as there were various ways of systematizing it. While schools may have started measuring the food used in the school lunch programme, not all foods were tested due to budget and time constraints, and sampling as well as frequency were big issues. Some municipalities just tested the entire meal as one sample, and others measured contamination levels in several but not all ingredients. The whole meal sample method meant that measurements were taken after the entire meal was cooked and had already been eaten by students, so it is mainly for research and tracking purposes, and does not reflect the mothers’ wishes to prevent the intake of contaminated food by their children.[15]

The groups also had to watch the precision of measurement, particularly in terms of Minimum Detectable Concentration (MDC). The detectors that the national government provided to 17 prefectures had an MDC at 40 Bq/kg,[16] but many groups felt that this MDC was too high.[17] Some groups therefore focused on lowering the MDC used by municipalities. In Kanagawa, for instance, a group mobilized to have the MDC lowered to 3 Bq/kg.[18] Another group in Tokyo learned that their ward was introducing a detector whose MDC was 30 Bq/kg and lobbied to change it to a better detector with an MDC of 10 Bq/kg.[19]

An additional issue that the movement often brought up was the question of whether or not contaminated food should be used after being measured. In November 2011, the Ministry of Education issued a notice saying that the standard for school lunches should be 40 Bq/kg and if food tested above it, the schools should not use it.[20] The implied message was that if food tests lower than 40 Bq/kg, it can be used in school lunches even if it contains radioactive materials. Indeed, there were cases where municipal governments used foods with some contamination where it was below 40 Bq/kg. For instance, Sendai City in Miyagi Prefecture found 11 Bq/kg in a sample of mushrooms and still fed them to the children. Many groups therefore tried to pressure municipal governments into adopting stricter cut-off points.

Some school lunch movement groups also problematized the measurement programs’ testing for limited types of radionuclides only. Almost all detectors used by municipal school lunch programmes are NaI scintillation detectors, which can only detect radionuclides that emit gamma rays such as iodine and caesium, but cannot detect others that do not emit gamma rays, such as strontium. The government surveys of soil and ocean have found strontium deposits from the nuclear accident, although they argue that strontium has only been found within the range of what was observed during the 1960s when atmospheric nuclear tests were at their height.[21] [22] Some groups nevertheless lobbied for the measurement of these non-caesium radionuclides, albeit with full awareness of the difficulty and costliness of doing so. For instance, a group in Setagaya ward in Tokyo successfully lobbied the municipal

government to measure strontium although it would take place only


once a year.

  • [1] Cabinet Office, Shokuiku hakusho, 2013. These statistics are for schools that provide what iscalled ‘complete school lunches,’ a meal consisting of rice or bread, main dish(es), and milk. Thereare other schools that provide supplementary foods or milk only.
  • [2] Japan Private Schools Education Institute, ‘Gakkosu no suii’.
  • [3] Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, ‘Shinendo kara no gakkokyushoku no jisshi'.
  • [4] Makishita, Hdshand osen to gakko kyushoku Save the Children, ‘Osen gyUniku’.
  • [5] Karaki, ‘Kiseichi wa anzen'.
  • [6] Association to Protect Children from Radiation in Yokohama, ‘Koho Yokohama hoshasen’.
  • [7] Data is available from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries at The seafood data is calculated based on a report by theMinistry
  • [8] Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare, ‘Shokuhinchu no hOsha seibusshitsu no kensa nitsuite’.
  • [9] Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare, ‘Sanko shiryo (attachment)’.
  • [10] Kimura, ‘Standards as Hybrid Forum’.
  • [11] Iida, Sato, and Kono, Genshiryoku mura wo koete; Japan Scientists’ Association, Kokusaigenshiryoku mura.
  • [12] Foodwatch, Calculated Fatalities from Radiation.
  • [13] Tokyo Shimbun, ‘Shokuhin shogai 100 mSv no mondaiten’; Nishi Nihon Shimbun, ‘Prof.Nagayama of Kyushu University Proposes Food Standards’.
  • [14] Asahi Shimbun, ‘Kyushoku ni hoshano kijun, 1 kiro 40 bekureru’; Asahi Shimbun, ‘Fukushimashi kyUshoku shokuzai no hOshasen kensa kaishi’.
  • [15] Makishita, Hdshand osen to gakko kyushoku, 48—9.
  • [16] Ibid., 45.
  • [17] Mothers’ Group to Investigate Early Radiation Exposure, ‘Ninshikinochigai kara umaretabundan’.
  • [18] Yoshizawa, ‘Hayashi shicho intabyu’.
  • [19] Tokyo Shimbun, ‘Onaji kondate de bento fuan nuguenu haha, gyUnyU kyohi mo’.
  • [20] Asahi Shimbun, ‘Kyushoku ni hoshano kijun, 1 kiro 40 bekureru’. Note that this cut-off pointis already much lower than the national standard. The official national standard for regular foodhas been 100 Bq/kg since April 2012.
  • [21] Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, ‘Gakko kyushokuhi’.
  • [22] Association to Protect Children in Shinagawa, ‘Shinagawa ku’.
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