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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Screening St. Pete's Hottest Dishes

ST. PETERSBURG -- Found a tomato out at the dacha that's grown into the shape of Richard Nixon's head? Or a zucchini the size of a two-man submarine? For Petersburgers worried that home-grown produce or those odd-looking, fresh-picked mushrooms may be tainted by radiation, there's a place to go. More than 10 years after the accident at Chernobyl, the St. Petersburg Veterinary Administration's Radiation Department still tests all meat, dairy and vegetable products coming in and out of the city for signs of radiation.


Not only does the department routinely test goods at processing plants, markets and warehouses, but workers also provide radiation testing free of charge to anyone who brings in at least 250 grams of whatever food they want tested. "We're finding a lot fewer cases of radioactivity now, of course," says Deputy Chief Vladimir Mironov, "but there are still radioactive goods coming into the city, especially from Belarus and Ukraine."


Local produce is also at risk, says Mironov.


"There are some areas in the Leningrad Oblast where it's, well, not advisable to pick mushrooms," he says. "A northerly wind blew clouds of radioactive dust from Chernobyl into Leningrad Oblast, and there are areas that still have dangerous levels of radioactivity in the soil."


Considering the enormous volume of goods coming in and out of the city, the department doesn't have nearly enough workers to carry out testing itself. Instead, food producers and handlers are provided with dosimeters and a log book, in which they are expected to record the results of testing. Department officials make periodic checks of the logs to ensure that food is being tested.


When a dosimeter reading shows a high level of radioactivity, the suspect food is brought to the department's testing area on the fourth floor of its offices at 4-aya Sovetskaya Ulitsa. There, the food is tested with more sophisticated equipment, either the "express method detector" or a radiochemical detector, as simple dosimeters can sometimes register "false positives" when food is affected by natural radionucleides, which are not harmful to humans.


And if the more sophisticated radiochemical analysis shows the food to be radioactive, what happens to it then? Something very different than what happened in the years immediately after the Chernobyl accident, according to Mironov.


"In the years following the accident, radioactive meat used to bemixed with normal meat to bring it down to normal levels," he says. "Once a sufficient amount of normal meat was mixed in, the meat was sent to markets as usual."


To suggestions that it might have been safer to simply discard the tainted meat, Mironov bristles. "What, just throw it all away? We're talking tons and tons of meat. That would have been an incredible waste."


The special meat-mixing line is long gone now, and any radioactive goods found during testing meet a very different fate: they are trucked off to a sealed "tomb" housing radioactive items outside St. Petersburg.


Mironov won't say where the tomb is located -- "That's not my area. I'm just responsible for testing," he says -- but he will say that it is well- guarded.


If the walls of the tomb are anything like the lead wall of the "express method detector" in the department's testing area, radiation won't be escaping any time soon. Made of highly dense, extremely heavy lead, the express detector is used to check goods brought in by individuals, many of whom respond to the department's ads on local radio and in magazines.


The food is placed in the detector, which is then sealed tight for the duration of the test. Results show up within about 15 minutes on an "impulse analyzer" screen, which indicates the presence of Cesium 134 or 137, or Strontium 90, the telltale indicators of radioactivity.


On a recent test of a jar of homemade vareniye, a type of jam made from fresh berries, Radiation Department Head Irina Sirota fairly cooed over the results, as if she were assessing a particularly beautiful painting.


"Excellent, excellent," she said, beaming. "This is a wonderful reading.


"No sign of radioactivity," she continued, handing over the jar with a flourish. "You can eat your vareniye with full peace of mind."