Sushi: Safe to Eat?

The international repercussions of the disaster that ripped apart Japan in March are hitting the worldwide food market. With fears over radioactive fish and produce causing governments to ban Japanese imports, seafood fans are all asking if it’s still safe to dine on sushi. The short answer in Shanghai? Yes.

Immediately following the earthquake, tsunami and the resulting radiation leak from the Fukushima power plant in Japan, the Chinese government moved quickly to block imports from affected territories, including Tokyo’s famed fish market Tsuijiki. As increased radiation levels were discovered in spinach, milk and a fish known as the sand lance in late March, the Chinese government implemented more aggressive import safety regulations, banning fish, vegetables and other food products from the five prefectures closest to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

By 8 April, China’s General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine expanded the ban to 12 prefectures and required new certificates from all other regions – a move that effectively blocked all shipments of Japanese foodstuffs to China.

“The documents certifying radiation levels and transportation routes never existed before,” says Ko Yamazaki, owner of Sushi Hisago. “Japanese bureaucracy takes time to issue these new do

cuments.” As TALK was going to press, Yamazaki’s suppliers confirmed that fish from Nagasaki will have the necessary documents on 28 April and should be back in China’s supply chain, but that hasn’t stopped some Japanese restaurants from turning to alternative sources for their fresh seafood.

Corporate-owned brands, like Shangri-La and The Ritz-Carlton, are staying mum about restarting imports, even if the products do bear the official stamp of approval. Chefs and owners at smaller, locally-owned restaurants are working closely with suppliers to find creative solutions for their menu redesigns. Before the earthquake, the menus at Kappo Yu and Sushi Oyama featured upwards of 75 per cent Japanese imports. Now, the owner Takeo Oyama is finding ingredients from further abroad.

“I use abalone from Tasmania and South Africa, scampi from Argentina and New Zealand, oysters from the USA and Canada,” he explains. “The bluefin tuna on the menu is from Spain, where the northern waters of the Mediterranean produce good tuna.”

Once the bureaucratic red tape is sorted, most of the smaller restaurants that imported their products from Japan expect to start up deliveries again, but diners shouldn’t be concerned. The Nagasaki market in Japan where most of the seafood is sourced faces the East China Sea and is more than 1,000km from the site of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, rendering any radiation fears moot. In addition, fish will undergo strict radiation testing and suppliers must provide proof of origin for any exports.

Now a psychological issue for potential diners, Japanese cuisine has an uphill battle in reassuring the world about its cuisine. Japanese government officials are publicly eating produce direct from the Fukushima region in an attempt to dispel reservations, but people around the globe are still avoiding Japanese restaurants in general, even those that source their products from other regions and even countries. More than a quarter of Japanese restaurants in Hong Kong are expected to close, and restaurants in Dalian are running into trouble, despite the fact the seafood-rich city rarely imports from Japan even under normal circumstances.

More locally, at least five Japanese restaurants in Gubei have also been forced to shut their doors as diners adapt their eating habits. The price point at all locations that have already closed was mid-range, about RMB 300 – 400 per person. Chefs speculate that these restaurants were unable to find suitable replacements for their Japanese suppliers and couldn’t financially cope with the new import restrictions and decreased demand.

High end restaurants like Sushi Oyama have also seen a dip in sales, but Oyama-san attributes the lull to the national mood. Japanese expats, who make up the lion’s share of the customers, are sombre during this time of crisis and are less likely to indulge in anomakase experience. Despite the temporary drop in revenue, Oyama is looking at the big picture and sees an optimistic future – good news for lovers of Japanese cuisine around Shanghai.

This article was originally written by Jamie for the May 2011 edition of Shanghai TALK.

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