By Kiyoshi Takenaka
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese private research labs with radiation testing gear have been flooded with orders for checks on food and soil samples after shipments of contaminated beef deepened public anxiety over radiation leaks from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant.
Private institutions are bearing the brunt of a surge in demand from the public for radiation inspection, with public research facilities already overwhelmed with requests from the central and local governments, schools and farm cooperatives.
"It's totally understandable that people are worried. But we are barely keeping our heads above water with such tasks as pre-shipment checks on farm products," said an official in Fukushima prefecture, where the stricken plant is located.
A 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami on March 11 knocked out the cooling functions at Tokyo Electric Power Co's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant 240 km (150 miles) north of the capital, triggering the radiation crisis.
The government said last week radioactive cesium three to six times higher than government safety standards was found in beef shipped to Tokyo from a farm near the Fukushima plant. Some of the contaminated meat was sold to consumers.
"We are even receiving orders all the way from western Japan. The distribution of (contaminated) beef has made them realize this is not someone else's problem," said Akira Hanawa, president of Isotope Research Institute in Yokohama, near Tokyo.
"They are now worried if other farm products like vegetables are safe to eat. I often get calls from parents who say anxiety is keeping them awake at night."
More than 1,000 live cattle that ate contaminated feed have been shipped all over Japan from Fukushima and other prefectures, Kyodo news agency reported on Wednesday.
The mounting safety concern prompted Aeon, Japan's No.2 retailer, to start its own checks on radiation levels in beef from 10 prefectures.
The beef scare adds to a long list of reports of excessive levels of radiation found in vegetables, tea, milk, seafood and water, compounding public concerns that the authorities were struggling to cope with the nuclear crisis.
"We had a deluge of orders for beef inspection over the past few days. It was water and soil before that. Requests are also pouring in for checks on all kind of food and farm products such as milk, fruits and juice," Hanawa said.
It costs 15,000 yen ($190) to have his company run a radiation check on a sample, but that is not stopping a concerned public from placing orders, he said.
Hanawa said his company receives about a hundred orders a day from local governments, agricultural cooperatives, exporters as well as individuals.
"Our researchers are under a lot of strain. They have not taken even a day off, and have stayed at a nearby hotel ever since the disaster," Hanawa said.
Another private research facility, Environmental Analysis Research Institute, located in Fukushima prefecture, has seen 10-15 orders a day for radiation checks, almost all of them from individual consumers.
"It's ordinary households placing orders. It's your regular grandpas and grandmas who want to check if potatoes grown in home gardens are free from radiation before they feed them to their grandchildren," said Mihoko Kikuchi, president of the institute.
"I myself as a mother wanted to know if I was raising my children in a safe environment. That's why I decided on the introduction of the testing device at the company in the first place," she said.
After the Fukushima crisis, her company obtained a bank loan and bought the testing equipment for 15.5 million yen ($197,000), she said.
"No one is telling public research entities to handle checks only for governments. But they are so inundated with orders from public institutions that they have little capacity left to handle other requests," said an official at the Education Ministry. ($1 = 78.515 Japanese Yen)
(Additional reporting by James Topham; Editing by Sugita Katyal)