Even after explosions rocked the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Kuniaki Sato, who raises cattle at Minamisoma, about 20 miles from the crippled complex, said he had received no clear warning from the government about the possible dangers of radiation to his herd.

So six weeks after the accident, on April 23, he shipped 12 of his prized cattle from his farm to market.

Now Japanese agricultural officials say meat from more than 500 cattle that were likely to have been contaminated with radioactive caesium has made its way to supermarkets and restaurants across Japan in recent weeks. Officials say the cattle ate hay that had been stored outside and exposed to radiation.

“I was a little worried, but we had to sell when we could,” he said.

Across a range of foods

When a precautionary order to halt all farm shipments was lifted soon after the accident, area farmers took it as a go-ahead sign, he said. “We all resumed shipments,” he said. “Of course we did.”

The revelations by the government this month that contaminated meat reached Japanese markets have intensified food safety concerns in Japan, underscoring the government's inability to control the spread of radioactive material into the nation's food.

Radioactive material has been detected in a range of produce, including spinach, tea leaves, milk and fish. Contaminated hay has been found at farms more than 85 miles from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant, suggesting that the radioactive fallout has reached a wider area than first suspected. Still, because of a severe shortage of testing equipment, and local governments that are still swamped with disaster relief, only a small percentage of farm products grown in the region get checked for radiation.

The government has suspended agricultural shipments from within a radius of about 12 miles around the Fukushima plant, as well as a number of other identified radiation “hot spots.” But farms outside those areas, even those relatively close to the plant, have faced few restrictions in shipping their produce.

For months the government baulked at placing a wider ban on produce from the Fukushima region despite sporadic discoveries of contaminated produce, for fear of bringing fresh confusion in the disaster-stricken area, putting thousands more people out of work and adding to growing compensation claims for Tokyo Electric Power, which operates the Fukushima plant.

Now, with the number of contamination cases rising, the government is finally moving to ban beef shipments from Fukushima Prefecture, an area of 5,300 square miles, slightly smaller than Connecticut. Yukio Edano, the chief cabinet secretary, said on July 19 that the government was in the “final stages” of coordinating such a ban and an announcement could come later that day.

Fukushima Prefecture has also said it issued instructions in late March warning farmers to make sure hay was stored indoors, to prevent possible contamination from rain. But many farmers said they were not aware of such a directive.

Cattle from some areas with high radiation readings, including in Minamisoma, a city in Fukushima Prefecture, had been checked for radiation on the surface of their skins before being shipped to market. But those checks do not sufficiently measure whether cattle have been exposed to radiation internally by eating contaminated feed, officials say.

Fukushima government officials said they were starting inspections of all 4,000 or so cattle farms in the prefecture to make sure that none of them was using radioactive hay. Meanwhile, ranchers have been asked to comply with a new voluntary shipment ban.

Japanese government officials insist that even at levels above government limits, radioactive caesium will not have an immediate effect on health. Longer-term effects are less known, however. Many experts say that prolonged exposure to radiation can lead to a higher incidence of cancers like leukaemia. (Max Hodges contributed research.) — © New York Times News Service

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