Kenji Miyoda, savoring a bowl of rice topped with beef from Australia, raw egg and spicy sauce, believes Australian beef is far safer than American beef.
“It tastes OK, it’s cheap, and it fills me up,” the 27-year-old banker said gobbling down his 450 yen meal at Sukiya, a nationwide chain that placed a full-page newspaper ad to declare it’s opposed to serving U.S. beef because of safety concerns.
Miyoda’s view is typical among many Japanese. Australian beef was once viewed as tough and tasteless compared with its U.S. counterpart, but that stereotype is vanishing on quality upgrades by switching feed to grain, instead of just grass, to cater to the Japanese palate.
There’s no doubt the Australian beef industry has been the biggest beneficiary from the serious troubles U.S. beef is facing in regaining consumer acceptance in Japan — the world’s second-largest economy and once a $1.4 billion export market for American beef.
The discovery of a cow infected with mad cow disease in the United States in 2003 prompted Japan to ban U.S. beef.
The partial reopening of the market in December immediately went awry in January, however, when veal cuts with backbone were found in a shipment. Such cuts are eaten in the U.S. but considered a mad cow disease risk in Japan.
The fumble, which U.S. officials call an isolated error, has sent the already badly tarnished image of American-grown beef plunging here.
Central to its appeal is the fact that Australia has never had mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a brain-wasting ailment in cattle. Australia protects its cow herd religiously, boasting that its borders as an island nation are closed to possible contamination.
In people, eating meat products contaminated with BSE is linked to more than 150 deaths worldwide, mostly in Britain, from a deadly human nerve disorder, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.
Last year, Japanese restaurant chains had been preparing to serve U.S. beef with great fanfare following a two-year hiatus.
But the disappointment after the January mishap — and shattered credibility — were devastating. These days, consumers aren’t sure any more whether American shipments will ever be safe.
Raising grain-fed cows — something American cattle owners were doing for years — is a relatively new discovery for the Australians. But the Japanese appetite for Aussie beef is ballooning.
The ad for Sukiya’s latest menu addition boasts that Beef Bowl Italiano uses “safe Aussie beef.”
“We are not totally convinced we can say there’s no reason to worry about the safety” of U.S. beef, it said.
The numbers tell the story: Australian beef now makes up 51 percent of the beef consumed in Japan. Australian beef shipments to Japan surged 45 percent to 412,000 tons last year from 284,000 tons in 2003.
Hideo Yamamura, meat section manager at Keisei Store Co., which runs 32 stores in Tokyo’s suburbs, said Australian beef has adapted well to consumer tastes.
“Frankly, it was an alternative to American beef, but it has won support from Japanese,” he said, adding that his stores plan to stick with Australian beef for some time.
Japanese are notorious for their finicky eating habits, including a liking for a gourmet strand of marbled beef from Japan’s “wagyu” cows famous for guzzling beer. Selling foreign beef here has been a long fight to woo people to leaner, cheaper beef.
“Australian beef has little fat but has body, and so it’s good for eating everyday,” said Tomoyoshi Yokota, executive chef of ANA Hotel in Tokyo, who regularly cooks Australian beef. “Japanese tastes are changing.”
Beef imports from New Zealand have also grown, more than doubling to 38,000 tons from 17,000 tons over the same period, although most of the cows are grass-fed.
“There are these negative perceptions about grass-fed beef,” said John Hundleby, Japan representative of Meat and Wool New Zealand, funded by livestock producers. “It’s not the horrible uneatable product that some people like to portray it.”
Canadian beef, banned in 2003 with American beef, is re-entering the Japanese market, and also has potential to grow because the cattle are grain-fed.