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Originally published March 20, 2011 at 9:13 PM | Page modified March 20, 2011 at 10:31 PM

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Contamination is raising Japan's fear over food safety

At a bustling Tokyo supermarket Sunday, wary shoppers avoided one particular bin of spinach.

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TOKYO — At a bustling Tokyo supermarket Sunday, wary shoppers avoided one particular bin of spinach.

The produce came from Ibaraki prefecture in the northeast, where radiation was found in spinach grown up to 75 miles from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant. Another bin of spinach — labeled as being from Chiba prefecture, west of Tokyo — was sold out.

"It's a little hard to say this, but I won't buy vegetables from Fukushima and that area," said shopper Yukihiro Sato, 75.

From corner stores to Tokyo's vast Tsukiji fish market, Japanese shoppers picked groceries with care Sunday after the discovery of contamination in spinach and milk fanned fears about the safety of the food supply. Trace amounts of radioactive iodine also were found in tap water in Tokyo and elsewhere in Japan.

The anxiety added to the spreading impact of the unfolding nuclear crisis triggered when the March 11 tsunami battered the Fukushima complex, wrecking its cooling system and leading to the release of radioactive material.

Workers appeared to make moderate progress in stabilizing some of the nuclear reactors at the plant Sunday.

Authorities said they had restored water pumps to two damaged reactors, Nos. 5 and 6, that were not of central concern, putting them under control in a state known as "cold shutdown."

But another reactor that has proved more worrisome, No. 3, appeared to have a serious setback as officials said that pressure buildup would require the venting of more radioactive gases.

But at a news conference a few hours later, officials from the Tokyo Electric Power said the pressure had stabilized and there was no need to immediately release the gases, which would have heightened worries about wider contamination among the population. After connecting a mile-long electrical-transmission line Saturday, workers made progress in starting to restore power to the plant, which may allow the operator to restart its cooling systems.

The government said power was returned to Reactor No. 2 on Sunday, and other reactors were also expected to gain power early in the week.

Radiation contamination, meanwhile, was a concern. The substances detected in the food products were iodine-131 and cesium-137, two of the more dangerous byproducts of reactor operations that are feared to have been released from the plants in Fukushima. If absorbed through milk and milk products, iodine-131 can accumulate in the thyroid and cause cancer. Cesium-137 can damage cells and lead to an increased risk of cancer.

Tetsuro Fukuyama, the deputy chief Cabinet secretary, stressed that although the readings were above levels deemed normal, they posed no immediate risks.

"At current levels, I would let my children eat the spinach and drink the water" from Fukushima, he said. His children did not drink much milk, he added.

None of the produce found to be contaminated has been shipped to market, he said, but he admitted that contaminated-but-untested produce could have slipped through.

There were no signs Sunday of the panic buying that stripped Tokyo supermarkets of food last week. Instead, shoppers scrutinized the source of items and tried to avoid what they worried might be tainted.

Mayumi Mizutani was shopping for bottled water, saying she was worried about her 2-year-old grandchild after a tiny amount of radioactive iodine was found in Tokyo's tap water.

On Sunday, an official of Taiwan's Atomic Energy Council said radiation was detected on fava beans imported from Japan, although in an amount that was too low to harm human health.

Japan's food exports are worth about $3.3 billion a year — less than 0.5 percent of its total exports — and seafood makes up 45 percent of that, according to government data.

Fears of radioactive contamination hurt sales at Tokyo's Tsukiji market, where merchants at hundreds of stalls sell tuna, octopus and other fish fresh off the boat. Traders have been hit hard by power cuts and an exodus of foreigners, and they worry about long-term damage from public fears over possible contamination of fish stocks.

The market had plenty of fresh fish despite the destruction of much of Japan's northeastern fishing fleet in the tsunami. Whole fish and shellfish were laid out on wooden tables washed by a flow of cold water.

At a restaurant adjacent to the market, sushi chef Hideo Ishigami said the nuclear scare and transportation disruptions because of power cuts have cost him business.

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