Turmoil over beef spreads to luxury brands

Kyodo

Turmoil caused by the recent detection of cesium contamination of beef shipped from Fukushima Prefecture, home to the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, is spreading to hurt producers of high-quality beef in other parts of the country.

With cattle shipments and bidding suspended or canceled due to public fears over the contaminated beef, livestock farms and related firms worry they may be forced out of business.

Since radioactive cesium above the government-designated safety limit was detected in beef cattle from Fukushima at a Tokyo slaughterhouse on July 8, it has been discovered that cattle possibly fed with contaminated straw have been transported across the country, except for Okinawa.

An agricultural cooperative in Oshu, Iwate Prefecture, has decided to suspend the scheduled shipment later this month of 26 cattle used to produce Maezawa beef, one of the finest beef brands in Japan, due to plummeting prices.

According to an industry source, the price of Maezawa beef dropped to less than half compared with ordinary times during the busy summer gift season from June to July.

Oshu is located around 180 km from Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima plant, which was crippled by the March 11 earthquake-tsunami disaster. The northeastern city is home to around 90 farms of Maezawa brand cattle.

Matsuo Suzuki, a farmer who breeds 60 cattle, is worried that the cattle will not be shipped at prime time. Cattle reach their prime after being fattened for 20 to 24 months after reaching 10 months old.

“After cattle pass their prime time, they can fall sick, affecting the quality of the beef,” said 63-year-old Suzuki, adding he is also worried because cattle especially tend to get vulnerable to stress during hot weather.

The contamination crisis also came at a time when Maezawa beef, registered as a trademark by the JA Iwate Furusato Agricultural Cooperative Association, won the highest prize last year for the first time in 17 years at a national convention.

Suzuki called on the government to deal with the issue swiftly, warning that without consumer trust, farms would be unable to ship their cattle.

In Oshu, the Ogata chain of butcher shops, operated by a livestock firm raising Maezawa cattle, emphasizes the safety of its beef by posting a sign saying the beef has cleared a test by a private company and contains no radioactive materials.

Meanwhile, straw fed to cattle used to produce Matsuzaka luxury-brand beef in Mie Prefecture has also been found to be contaminated with radioactive cesium exceeding the allowable limit.

A farmer in the city of Matsuzaka said, “Straw from northeastern Japan was dry and fine. I thought it was safe because it was from areas outside the evacuation zone.”

“The government should have imposed regulations over a wider area at an early date,” he added.

In Yamagata Prefecture, a group that promotes Yonezawa brand beef is mulling imposing a radioactive standard stricter than the government-set limit of 500 becquerels per kilogram.

MPC Inc., a public corporation in Yamagata, has canceled bidding for Yonezawa beef, initially slated for Thursday, to make preparations for further examinations of the meat.

Shintaro Murakami, a 71-year-old farmer of 18 cattle in the city of Nagai in the prefecture, said, “If people’s concerns over beef continue, I’ll have to close down my business.”