Uncertainty reigns in tuna, as Japan cuts back on bluefin imports. But the humanitarian crisis might also trigger more demand, reports Julia Glotz

At a high-end restaurant in Taipei, diners were this week given the option of checking their sashimi with a Geiger counter if they wanted to be sure it hadn’t been contaminated with radiation.

But following news of raised radiation levels in seawater near the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant, the ramifications for Japanese foods such as fish and particularly tuna extend far around the world, with governments rushing out to announce ­extra screening procedures on Japanese products to calm ­consumer fears.

In the UK, the FSA said it was working with port health authorities and other government departments to ensure food imported from Japan into the UK (most of which is fish and shellfish) was screened for radioactive material, while other countries notably the US went as far as imposing outright bans on some Japanese foods.

Although many experts warn it is too early to quantify exactly what the impact of the Japanese crisis will be on global markets, the situation has set alarm bells ringing in the tuna industry.

According to the UNFAO, Japan is the world’s number-one importer of seafood, and it consumes a large amount of fresh and tinned tuna. If its ongoing national emergency changes how much tuna, or what kind, it imports and consumes, this may upset the dynamics of the global tuna trade with a possible knock-on effect on prices.

But which way? At the luxury end of the market, bluefin tuna fisheries in Southern Europe have expressed concern that demand for expensive bluefin could dry up as Japanese consumer confidence drops and shoppers cut back on luxuries, leading prices to plummet.

Although in the UK skipjack and yellowfin are more commonly ­consumed than bluefin tuna, UK consumers could also be affected. Tuna raw material prices have become more volatile recently, with skipjack prices on the Bangkok market moving from $1,200 at the beginning of 2010 to a high of $1,800 in the summer before dropping to $1,000 in November. They are currently at about $1,600 per tonne.

Such volatility is likely to be here to stay, says Rabobank analyst Gorjan Nikolik. “At the same time, global demand is growing, particularly in markets such as Brazil and Russia, while the total supply of tuna remains the same.” The demand situation could become tighter still if demand for tinned tuna rises as Japan struggles to overcome the logistics and infrastructure problems created by the earthquake.

“Canned tuna sales from the Southern Pacific and Indian Ocean may pick up as unopened canned tuna doesn’t need refrigeration,” says Mintec analyst Robert Miles. Plus, canned tuna could play an important role as Japan copes with the humanitarian fallout of its earthquake, he adds. “It’s a good source of oil and protein that could help with relief.”

That means even if fears of impending price drops driven by bluefin may initially dominate the agenda, longer-term price rises could yet be on the cards.