Although sushi may be the dish of choice for many Japanese, consumption of beef has greatly expanded in the country since it opened its doors to Western culture following the Meiji Restoration.

Since then, Japan has developed its own beef-based cuisine with the likes of sukiyaki and “gyudon” beef bowls, and it has also succeeded in breeding “wagyu” cattle, whose meat today is known worldwide for its exceptional flavor.

But the recent outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Miyazaki Prefecture has cast a shadow over the wagyu industry, causing considerable damage to decades of efforts by local farmers.

What is wagyu?

The literal translation of wagyu is Japanese beef, but it refers to specific breeds of cattle that are predisposed to having juicy meat with a soft texture and rich flavor.

Wagyu cattle are raised to produce the perfect balance of fat and red meat, and the meat has a marbled appearance when sliced for cooking.

This derives from efforts by farmers to raise their cattle in a stress-free environment, feeding them properly balanced meals and at times pampering them with beer. Some farmers even go so far as to massage their cattle to keep the meat soft.

Each wagyu beast in Japan must be registered to ensure its lineage.

For example, the Wagyu Registry Association registered 522,564 calves in 2008, issuing documentation for each calf that includes its family lineage for up to three previous generations. Nose prints are marked on each animal’s registration document to distinguish one calf from the other.

What kinds of wagyu breeds are there and where are they kept?

They include Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Polled and Japanese Shorthorn. Areas known to produce some of the tastiest wagyu are Hida in Gifu Prefecture, Kobe, and Matsusaka in Mie Prefecture.

Known for commanding a high price, wagyu cattle are also being bred overseas. For example, large herds are being raised in New Zealand and Australia.

When did Japanese begin consuming beef?

Cattle were introduced to Japan around the second century to help rice farming. But the practice of eating beef was not common until much later, because some devout Buddhist leaders, including Emperor Shomu — who reigned between 724 and 749 — prohibited consumption of meat. Until Japan started introducing Western culture in the late 19th century, eating animal meat was in general considered taboo for most people.

However, recent studies prove some could not resist the temptation of juicy, thick steaks — and that they probably preferred it rare.

Last month, the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties revealed that a study of stool found in the ruins of the eighth century capital Heijo-kyo showed parasitic infection, proving that even at such an early date some people ate pork and beef.

When and how did the consumption of beef spread in Japan?

By the middle of the 15th century, Japanese began consuming beef but more for nutrition and health. Beef was usually pickled in miso or sake for preservation purposes.

The 1867 Meiji Restoration truly opened the door for the public to get a taste of beef, with sukiyaki hot pots gaining popularity. The dish usually includes sliced beef, tofu and vegetables simmered in a mixture of soy sauce and sugar.

Meanwhile, Townsend Harris, the U.S. chief of mission to Japan who opened the first U.S. Consulate in what is now Shizuoka Prefecture in 1856, is known as one of the first people to drink cow’s milk in Japan. A monument titled “Gyunyu no Hi” (“Monument to Cow’s Milk”) in Gyokusenji Temple honors his contribution to dairy farming in Japan.

While Tokyo had long set import quotas on beef to protect the domestic industry, consumption of beef saw a turning point in the late 1980s when U.S. pressure eventually changed Japan’s limited beef trade. This enabled the likes of Yoshinoya Holdings Co. to provide cheaper beef meals and induced a sharp rise in beef consumption.

How much beef does the average Japanese consume?

In the mid-1950s people consumed on average about 1.1 kg of beef a year. But that number has increased sharply as the country began to eat Western-style meals and with the lifting of quotas on beef imports. By 2000, the average Japanese consumed 7.6 kg of beef annually, according to statistics provided by the agriculture ministry.

But that trend was hit hard by the spread of mad cow disease in 2001. Although Japanese were eating more than seven times as much beef as they did 50 years ago, the impact of the outbreak continues to push consumers away from beef, with the typical person eating about 5.7 kg in 2008 — down approximately 25 percent from the peak in 2000.

Meanwhile, Japan in 2008 imported about 670,000 tons of beef from overseas, mostly from Australia. Domestic production amounted to 518,000 tons that year, meaning Japan purchased more than half of its beef from overseas.

Why is wagyu beef so expensive?

Beef bowls served up by chain restaurants can be had for as little as ¥300 in Tokyo, but that is only because they use imported beef. A 3-year-old Matsusaka cow made headlines in 2002 when it was auctioned for a whopping ¥50 million.

In addition to the complicated process of breeding and hence the difficulty in mass-producing wagyu beef, experts say a long and cozy relationship between the government, bureaucrats and the industry has also kept the price high.

“The three groups formed an alliance and it has long controlled the import and export of beef,” said Tetsuji Yokota, a noted author of several books on the issue and chairman of the Food Safety Network.

“They turned everything into business, a tool to make as much money as they can,” instead of working to provide beef at a reasonable price, Yokota explained.

Why is Miyazaki Prefecture’s foot-and-mouth outbreak impacting the entire wagyu market?

The outbreak is considered a crisis because some 15 percent of Japanese Blacks — or 84,059 of the most popular wagyu breed — were born in Miyazaki in fiscal 2008, according to the National Livestock Breeding Center.

The spread of the disease affected not only the local beef industry but other areas as well, because calves from within the prefecture are moved and reared in other parts of Japan.

At the center of the crisis are the six “ace-class” seed bulls in Miyazaki Prefecture.

For example, a 0.5-cc vial of semen from a bull named Fukunokuni, which the prefecture produced after decades of crossbreeding, is sold for about ¥5,000. Fukunokuni’s semen is purchased by major wagyu breeders nationwide.

Fukunokuni and four other top seed bulls were spared from slaughter, but another was killed to curb the spread of the disease.

What lies ahead for the wagyu industry?

Food safety expert Yokota said learning from mistakes is the key to rebuilding Japan’s wagyu industry.

Despite receiving reports of a possible outbreak of foot-and-mouth in April, the government failed to act quickly and was unable to contain the damage until June.

But while former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama acknowledged there “may have been certain problems in terms of having done everything we could to prevent the expansion,” neither the central nor the prefectural government has taken responsibility for mishandling the situation.

Yokota said the parties involved should determine objectively why the spread could not be curbed to avoid similar blunders in the future.

“The wagyu industry is a core of Japan’s agriculture and needs to be nurtured in that manner,” he said.

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