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Contaminated foodstuffs dumped on world market

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Special: Chernobyl: Five years of disaster

By Dirk Bannink


(April 5, 1991) By now, five years after Chernobyl, it is obvious to everyone that the radioactive contamination didn't stop at the borders of the Soviet Union and that the consequences of the disaster are worldwide. One of those consequences is a lot of contaminated agricultural products. In 1986 alone, European Community countries produced over 100 million tonnes of milk. Ten to 20% of this quantity was considerably contaminated due to Chernobyl fallout. In addition to being consumed in areas where the contamination took place, these and other contaminated agricultural products were exported around the world.


In April 1989 the German newspaper Tageszeitung (taz) published an article on the export of contaminated food to countries outside Europe and North America. The following list is from the taz and is a supplement to the transactions mentioned in the accompanying article. It is itself supplemented where there is another source mentioned.

Cape Verde Islands: powdered milk from Switzerland
Egypt: powdered milk from UK (refused); whey from Germany (refused)
Ghana: 750 tonnes powdered milk from EC (5439 Bq); 60 tonnes from Czechoslovakia, declared fit for consumption by IAEA, Feb. 1988 - Der Spiegel (FRG), 2 Nov. 1987; Utrechts Nieuwsblad (NL), 24 June 1988
Liberia: powdered milk from EC: 15 Bq
Sudan: powdered milk from EC: up to 60 Bq
Burkino Faso: powdered milk from EC: 31 Bq
Kenya: powdered milk from Ireland: 33 Bq
Cameroon: Allgäuer butter, 4 weeks (!) after Chernobyl, not measured. Powdered milk from EC: 46 Bq
Somalia: powdered milk from EC: 24 Bq
Israel: Turkish almonds exported through France (refused) -- the third time Israel has refused contaminated exports: first, pistachio nuts; then laurel leaves -- Nieuw Israelisch Weekblad (NL), 26 June 1987
Jordan: meat from Ireland (refused and exported to Lebanon)
Iran: lamb from UK (refused)
Quatar: powdered milk from EC (refused)
Kuwait: lamb from UK (refused)
Saudi Arabia: 162 trucks from EC with items such as lentils, beans, figs, apricots and lamb (refused)
Nepal: powdered milk from Poland (refused)
Hong Kong: meat from Great Britain (refused)
Thailand: powdered milk from EC: 23 Bq
Philippines: powdered milk from Netherlands (refused) -- the same cargo was found twice in the Philippines: 1986 and August 1988 -- Trouw (NL), 30 Aug. 1988; El Pais (Spain), 30 Sept. 1986
Singapore: 240 shipments refused through Oct. 1986: powdered milk from the Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland, Denmark; cheese from France; chocolate from UK, Switzerland and Czechoslovakia; corn products from Italy; vegetables, fish, fruit and meat -- WISE NC 264, 5 Dec. 1986
Sri Lanka: 17 tonnes powdered milk from France (refused); marmalade from Poland (refused); prunes from Bulgaria (refused)
Malaysia: 45,000 kilo butter from the Netherlands, UK and Italy (refused) -- Nieuwe Krant (NL), 3 Oct. 1986; lamb from UK (refused)
Indonesia: Greek wheat (600 Bq) through Italy (refused)
Mexico: 7,000 tonnes powdered milk from Northern Ireland: 115 Bq (Brazil warned Mexico about the Irish Dairy Board and its attempts to sell powdered milk. Mexico signed a contract for 39,000 tonnes anyway. After many protests, and a large part had already been sold, the government sent back the remainder. -- NRC (NL), 26 Feb. 1988
El Salvador: powdered milk from Northern Ireland: 115 Bq
Jamaica: powdered milk from EC: 60 Bq (refused, even though EC threatened to stop all food aid, because it was meant for children and the elderly) -- 1800 bags were stolen before being destroyed -- Gelderlander (NL), 7 Sept. 1988
Venezuela: 500 tonnes powdered milk (to 1800 Bq) from Austria (refused); 6000 tonnes meat (710 Bq) from N.Ireland and Denmark (refused)
Brazil: meat from Italy (refused); powdered milk from Denmark (refused) powdered milk from EC: up to 2500 Bq

The practice didn't stop in 1986. By 1989, the EC had become so notorious for its - often blatant - exports of contaminated foodstuffs that port authorities in West Africa had, one after the other, forbidden the import of EC meat. Ghana was the first to sound the alarm, followed by Sierra Leone, where radio reports warned against the illegal importing of "toxic" products. In Liberia, the police demanded to see all documents, carried out painstaking investigations and seized any suspect cargos. On 22 September, the Ivory Coast Harbor Captain forbade the import of meat, no matter what its origin. This was one week after a similar decision in Togo. Two weeks later, Senegal banned the import of meat from the Netherlands. A ship from Sri Lanka wishing to unload its cargo was escorted outside the territorial waters of Benin by a naval patrol boat because authorities believed the cargo (meat) was contaminated. The ships "Baltic Universal" and "Alpha Reefer", which were suspected by several West African countries of transporting contaminated meat, were forced to leave the harbor of Owendo, Gabon, after 400 tonnes of meat that had already been unloaded had been destroyed by authorities. Meanwhile, there were at that time at least a dozen ships which had left from either North America or Europe and were looking for a friendly West African port, only to be turned away.

The motivation behind these actions was the fear of the likely presence on one of these ships of a large consignment of contaminated meat. It was known to be in a cargo of meat that had been refused by Venezuela in the summer of 1988, as part of it was radioactive. That cargo was then stored in the Nether-lands for some time before the more dangerous part was destroyed. The rest of the consignment was judged fit for human consumption as its radioactivity level fell below the norms of the EC - though not below the norms of some of the countries where the shippers tried to dump it. At the beginning of August 1989, Dutch environmentalists announced the cargo had left the Netherlands for West Africa, where testing for contamination was less rigorous.

In fact, most of the contaminated exports went to countries with either a great need for food or with import control facilities incapable of monitoring imports properly. Incredibly, many of these exports went as "aid" to those countries with the greatest need. Greenpeace described these transactions as "immoral and criminal". And they are. What we in Western Europe and North America don't want to eat, we send to countries in the Southern Hemisphere. And if they refuse it, we say that they are "over sensitive", that it is "completely safe, otherwise we wouldn't sent it". And sometimes we even threaten these countries with cancellation of our aid programs.

A confusing element in all this is the diversity in levels of "acceptable" radio-active contamination levels. In Western Europe, these dose levels have increased enormously over the last few years. In Western Germany, for instance, in 1962 the level for radioactive cesium was (in Bequerels per kilogram) 3.7; on 1 May 1987, 4; in 1989, 370 for milk and milk products and 600 for other food products; and from 1 January 1990, 1000 for milk and 1250 for other food products. In most of the importing countries the permitted levels are much lower. The Philippines, Thailand and Sri Lanka, for instance, have limits of 20 Bq/kg, wile Iran, Singapore, Burma and Borneo do not allow any radioactive contaminated imports at all. But one of the reasons that Western countries can claim that the products being exported are safe is simply because the levels of contamination of the food being exported falls within our own high limits. Yet, it cannot be said too many times: there is no safe radiation limit, every dose can cause cancer or genetic deformation.

Following is a list of imports drawn from published sources in newspapers and magazines. Further known transactions are listed in the accompanying box. Don't think, though, that there have been no more transactions with contaminated products than appear here. These are just some of the publicized transactions. And the fact that this list ends in January 1990 doesn't mean that no further such transactions have been made since that time; perhaps the papers are tired of mentioning them.

The List
(radioactive levels mentioned are for radioactive cesium in Bq/kg)

July 1986:
Dutch authorities order the destruction of at least 10,000 kg cherries from Greece. The radioactive levels are too high: 1,000 Bq. - NRC (NL), 22 July 1986.

Sept. 1986:
Brazil refuses 2,700 tonnes powdered milk from the Netherlands. - Parool (NL), 8 Sept. 1986
Sri Lanka forbids the import of Dutch milk products. Brazil and the Philippines have already done so. - Edese Krant (NL), 11 Sept. 1986

Nov. 1986:
Hazelnuts from Italy and Turkey, distributed in Germany, have unacceptable contamination levels: up to 500 Bq.
Thailand refuses 90 tonnes contaminated powdered milk from the Netherlands and Denmark, up to 3 times the national limit. - Reformatorisch Dagblad (NL), 22 Nov. 1986
Turkish tea sold in the Netherlands is highly contaminated: up to 35,000 Bq. - Trouw (NL), 29 Nov. 1986

Jan. 1987:
Japan refuses three shipments of food products: one with 30 tonnes hazelnuts from Turkey (up to 980 Bq); a second with 200 kg reindeer meat from Sweden; and a third with spices from Turkey. - WISE NC 270, 13 Mar. 1987

Feb. 1987:
Greece sells 800,000 tonnes highly radioactive wheat to an Italian pasta factory where it is mixed with other wheat and used for production of spaghetti. - Telegraaf (NL), 23 Feb. 1987
Egypt sends two ships back to where they came from: The Lebanese ship "Juliana" with a cargo of 3.5 tonnes linden herbs from Lebanon and the Egyptian ship "Ben Jubier" with 25 tonnes ground nuts from Turkey. Both cargos were more contaminated than international levels allow. - WISE NC 270, 13 Mar. 1987

April 1987:
After hearing that Bangladesh has imported contaminated powdered milk from Poland, Nepal immediately forbids the import of powdered milk from every other country. The result is a growing shortage of milk in the Himalayan kingdom. - NRC (NL), 26 May 1987

June 1987:
The US refuses a shipment of Brazilian beef extract because of its high cesium level. It is not know from which European country Brazil imported the beef. - taz (FRG), 9 June 1987

Sept. 1987:
In Gambia, Dr. Lenrie Peters, a specialist surgeon and writer, claims large quantities of contaminated food are being imported. "First, I got information that there was a lot of food, especially milk, butter, chicken and bacon, coming into the country that was being sold at an absurdly reduced rate. And knowing the commercial mentality, it seemed to me that there must be something behind it." - West Africa, 21 Sept. 1987

Oct. 1987:
France buys 10,000 lambs from Norway. Contamination is below permitted 600 Bq. but for "psycho-logical reasons" the meat can't be sold for consumption in Norway itself. - Trouw (NL), 24 Oct. 1987

March 1988:
A dozen countries are complaining about possible radio-active contamination of imported EC powdered milk: Jamaica, Mexico, Ghana, India, Brazil, Venezuela, Ethiopia, Somalia, Mozambique, Ngola, Sri Lanka and Thailand. The EC and the British Ministry of Agriculture say they are being "over sensitive". - Guardian (UK), 8 Mar. 1988

July 1988:
In India, 200 tonnes of contaminated butter from Ireland is converted into milk and sold through the government milk supply scheme. - WISE NC 296, 15 July 1988

Aug. 1988:
An employee of a Turkish company claims that two German, a Polish and a Czech company are exporting contaminated meat to Turkey. His company alone probably imported 2000 tonnes radioactive meat over a 2 year period. - De Waarheid (NL), 30 Sept. 1989

Sept. 1988:
Health authorities in Bari, Italy confiscate 2000 tonnes of grain from a Greek ship. It was meant for an Italian pasta factory and sold by a British agent. - Zwolse Courant (NL), 20 Sept. 1989

Aug. 1989:
Contaminated meat from the Chernobyl area has been sold to other Soviet republics until now. - Graafschapbode (NL), 25 May 1990

Sept. 1989:
Pakistan rejects 140 tonnes powdered milk sold by the Dutch firm Frico. It had been imported a year before and held by custom authorities after suspicion of contamination. An investigation by Pakistan's Atomic Energy Commission came to the conclusion that the contamination levels of cesium and strontium were above World Health Organization standards. Frico claims the EC must have sold it to Pakistan, because Frico sold it to the EC in 1986. - NRC (NL), 18 Sept. 1989

Oct. 1989:
Greece has, with permission from the EC, sold 600,000 tonnes contaminated (cesium-134 and -137) corn to "Third World" countries and East Germany. The EC had first decided in 1986 to destroy the grain, which was stored in Greek harbors, but Premier Papandreou refused to do so: he feared reactions from Greek corn traders. Instead, he mixed 300,000 tonnes of the contaminated corn with 300,000 tonnes of clean corn and offered it to the EC. The EC refused it because the purchase and storage costs were too high, but made no objection to Greece exporting the corn, which, though less contaminated, was still at unacceptable levels. - Algemeen Dagblad (NL), 3 Oct. 1989
The Greek ship "Arion-1" leaves the harbor of Lagos, Nigeria because authorities claim the cargo (meat) is contaminated. - Zwolse Courant (NL), 4 Nov. 1989

Jan. 1990:
Venezuela closes its harbors to two ships from Greece with 546 tonnes of contaminated meat. The ships are also rejected in Nigeria and other countries. - F.A.Z. (FRG), 16 Jan. 1990

(With thanks to the extensive archive on nuclear power at the LAKA Foundation, Amsterdam.)

Contact:The Press Alternative in Japan, in cooperation with the Citizens Measurement Center of Contaminated Foods in Tokyo, has proposed the establishment of a global network to monitor contamination in food. They are asking other groups with measuring equipment to contact them in order to form such a network. In the meantime, the Press Alternative says that for groups and people in countries without monitoring equipment, but who have reason to be concerned about milk imported into their countries, they will have samples checked by the Center if they are sent to them along with a letter explaining the situation in their country. Write to: Kazunori Tsuji, Press Alternative, Central Meguro 102, 2-7-10 Mita, Meguroku, Tokyo 153, Japan, tel: 03-791 2147, fax: 03-792-5395, telex: J32777 TELSERV ATT: TK00550 PRESS.