Alarmed consumers flee from fish
Although Chuseok, the nation’s biggest holiday, is less than three weeks away, the Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market was empty of customers at noon on Thursday except for a few Chinese tourists.
Even the sushi restaurants alongside the market, which are usually crowded during lunch and dinner hours, were completely vacant.
Only the merchants were having lunch, and workers delivering fish products passed through the long aisles of the market with tractors.
“The number of customers visiting the market has been cut in half since the radiation news broke out. It does not matter how often the government says our fish products are safe and how prominently we post the countries of origin, customers have just stopped coming here,” said a fish merchant at a store in the market.
“Even our regular customers have almost stopped coming, and when they do come by they always ask whether the fish are from Japan or Korea. But, generally, even Korean fish products are not selling, because there are no customers at all.”
The merchants said the fear of radiation is not only killing the livelihood of local fish merchants but also those of fishermen who supply the fish and carriers that ship the products to markets.
“The government is ignoring the situation and accelerating the overall downturn in the domestic economy,” another Noryangjin Fish Market merchant named Yang complained.
“If there are 100,000 fish merchants, there are also another 100,000 people working for the merchants in the fishing industry who are directly affected by the consumption downturn.
“Also, the press is coming here with cameras, asking customers if they are not worried about the fish products, and that further drove customers out of the market. Although we understand that the media should inform consumers, indiscriminate reports that do not suggest proper solutions or government measures have only escalated anxiety among consumers.
“Unless the government releases all the data to consumers to ensure that the fish products are safe, or bans all fish from Japan, the situation will not improve anytime soon.”
But government officials said they were doing all they could and that the extent of the problem has been exaggerated.
“It is impossible to conduct a total inspection of fish products,” a spokesman for the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries said, “since it would take too long and all the fish products would spoil. As a measure to dispel the fear, we plan to measure pollution levels in cooperation with the Ministry of Environment and invite consumers to participate and observe.”
“In addition, we also plan to strengthen the monitoring of fish products from Japan. We can’t just ban all imported fish from Japan, which might trigger a trade war between the two nations, and we are also exporting other products to Japan,” the spokesman continued.
The ministry official complained that consumers are being misled by the media into thinking that all fish products are contaminated.
“The radiation standards for fish products are established scientifically through research and studies. There is no kind of food that is completely clean. We would also respond in accordance with our crisis response manual if the fish products were actually detrimental to health,” the spokesman said.
“The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety is also conducting investigations,” the official continued, “and is releasing all the data on its Web site to explain why most Japanese fish are safe to eat. But no matter how much scientific data is released, consumers simply don’t trust those data because the media have sensationalized the matter just as they did in regard to American beef and mad cow disease in 2008.”
Oceanographic experts also emphasize that the fish products on sale here are safe to eat.
“Considering the movement of ocean currents, it is unlikely that Korean waters will be contaminated. Contaminated water from the Fukushima nuclear reactor site flows toward the Pacific Ocean. It will take about five years before the contaminated water returns to Korea after circulating around the entire earth on ocean currents. The radiation is being diluted as it moves, and thus there is no impact on Korean waters,” said an expert at the National Fisheries Research and Development Institute.
According to the institute, no radioactive iodine or cesium has been detected at 75 monitoring points in Korea’s seas or the East China Sea since 2011.
Several government experts also added that it is also unlikely that the Japanese fish will move to the coast of Korea.
One said, “The main fishing grounds for bluefin tuna and sharks are in the South Pacific Islands. Also, the fishing grounds for pollock and saury are far from Fukushima. Fish from deep-sea fishing vessels go through thorough inspections. Even so, no amount of radiation above the scientific limits has been detected. We are banning imports of all products of fish species that live in the waters near Fukushima, such as rockfish, flatfish and greenling.”
But consumers are not buying those reassurances, and sales of domestic fish at large retail outlets have been affected. Despite the fact that Fukushima is on the far side of Japan from Korea, sales of fish caught in the east and south seas are sluggish, while consumers are increasing their purchases of those caught in the Yellow Sea.
The nation’s largest discount-store chain, E-Mart, said yesterday that sales of cutlass fish, mackerel and pollock caught in the East Sea and the South Sea has dropped more than 40 percent this month through last Tuesday compared with the same period in August 2012.
Pollack sales were the major victim of the scare, while demand for cutlass fish was off only slightly.
But sales of fish caught in the Yellow Sea is strong. Demand for gizzard shad, now in season, has nearly quadrupled. Yellow sea crab sales are up 60 percent and those of cod up 10 percent at E-Mart this month.
And fish originating far from this part of the world are selling briskly. E-Mart said Senegalese cutlass fish sales have nearly doubled and those of Norwegian salmon are up modestly.
“Due to concerns about radioactive contamination, sales of marine products from places near Japan are plunging, while those caught in the Yellow Sea or in Africa are popular,” said a spokesman for E-Mart.
Large retailers are rolling out additional inspections to try to ease consumer anxiety. E-Mart is introducing what it calls “two-step enhanced marine safety measures.” Radiation measurements at its Sihwa Distribution Center in Gyeonggi have been increased, and those tests are also being conducted at their distribution centers in Yeoju, Gyeonggi, and Daegu, North Gyeongsang.
In addition, E-Mart said it would expand the scale of its random radioactivity measurement tests once a week on some fish products such as cod, mackerel and squid. Those random inspections will be performed daily on all species, and portable radiation detectors will be provided to each store and used at the request of any customer.
Lotte Mart has also been checking fresh fish at its distribution centers in Gimhae, South Gyeongsang, and Osan, Gyeonggi, every day since the nuclear incident in Japan. Since March, it has stopped selling Japanese fish at its stores nationwide.
A Lotte official said the chain was considering following E-Mart’s lead and giving radiation detectors to all its major stores.
Hyundai Department Store said its subcontractors would first test major domestic fish products such as cutlass fish, mackerel and squid at the Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market and that its fish buyers at stores would conduct secondary inspections of all fish products when the day’s supply arrived at the stores.
It will also confirm for any customer who asks if the fish is safe by using portable radiation detectors. Hyundai has posted signs in its stores saying it does not sell Japanese fish and that all domestic fish is safe.
“Because the consumption of domestic fish products has declined, the auction prices have also fallen and fishermen are facing difficulties. We plan to promote special events to stimulate consumption with enhanced inspections to inform consumers about the safety of domestic fish products,” a spokesman for Hyundai Department Store said.
BY KIM JUNG-YOON AND HWANG SEON-YOON [firstname.lastname@example.org]