Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Govt bans food imports from Japan for 3 months

NEW DELHI: The Indian government on Tuesday suspended food imports from Japan over fears these may be contaminated by radiation from tsunami-hit reactors. Speciality restaurants that serve sushi and tofu assured these won't go off the menus immediately but predicted a price hike. 

So far, three samples of frozen rice and soft drink that arrived in India last Saturday have been sent for testing. 

The ban decision for three months or until such time as credible information is available that the radiation hazard has subsided to acceptable limits came at a meeting on Monday. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) will undertake a weekly review, the Union health ministry said in an advisory. 

Though import of food products from Japan is estimated at a little over $1 million during April-September 2010, the demand for fish and packed food products has picked up in recent years. Since October, the list of products that has entered the country from Japan included soybean curd, dried noodles, boiled mushrooms, radish paste, cooking sauces, roasted seaweed, flavouring extracts, tea bags, wheat flour, food additives and tofu. Now, these products would be off the shopping list. 

After discussions, it was concluded that since radiation was spreading horizontally to other parts of Japan, it could result in further contamination of food exports from Japan. The ban therefore should be extended, officials added. 

The ban puts India in a group of countries that include the US, China, Singapore, and Hong Kong, though not all food imports have been banned by these countries. 

Restaurant owners in Mumbai and New Delhi assured the ban will not take sushi off the table immediately. Restaurants don't always depend on Japanese seafood and salmon, for instance, comes from Scotland in many cases and for other ingredients (sauces, seaweed) there are substitutes available from Thailand, Vietnam or China. 

"I think the government should be pragmatic and rather than impose a blanket ban, it should consider checking every consignment for contamination. If it is found free of radiation the import should be allowed," said Farokh Khambata, owner of south Mumbai's Joss restaurant, who assured he had enough stock to last three months. 

One of India's largest importers of Japanese food is based in Pune. Suku Shah's firm Olive Tree Trading supplies to leading hotels and restaurants across the country. "I am unaware of the ban but I am sure the government has weighed the issue of safety thoroughly before enacting it," said Shah. "I guess a ban is a natural reaction to the given situation, and if a role reversal were to occur, Japan might do so too." 

"We were never importing vegetarian supplies anyway. As for salmon and other seafood, we can get them from Sweden for instance. For the rest, there are substitutes," said Saurabh Khanijo, managing director, New Delhi's Kylin. "We are not taking any dish off the menu," he added. 

However, he does admit that suppliers are raising prices. 

Sushil Kumar Chadha of Tamura in the capital is more worried. "We have stocks to last three months but if the ban continues beyond that, were in trouble," he said. The rising price of raw material is also his main concern. "Rates have gone up by 25-30% and might go higher. At present were absorbing it but I don't think we can for long. Our rates are already quite competitive," he said.

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