Fast-food joints hail relaxed rules for U.S. beef, signal end of the world
Earlier this month a panel of experts recommended to the health ministry that it relax standards restricting imports of beef from the United States, Canada, France and the Netherlands for animals that are more than 20 months old. The panel suggests that cattle up to 30 months old be allowed for import and sale in Japan.
The restrictions were implemented in 2005 after BSE, or “mad cow disease,” was discovered in some livestock in the U.S. in 2003. Between 2003 and 2005 beef imports from the U.S. were banned. When the restriction went into effect, the U.S. objected, saying there was no conclusive proof that the age of the animal has anything to do with whether or not it can get BSE, and in any case, the incidence of the disease was extremely small and statistically insignificant. The government panel seems to have agreed with this opinion by saying that the age of the cow has no relationship “to people’s health.” They will give their official evaluation to the health ministry some time this fall, and the regulations should be relaxed by early next year.
Retailers and restaurateurs, especially fast food chains, are happy with the panel’s decision since it means they can start selling more U.S. beef, which is very popular among consumers here because of its higher fat content. More than 60 percent of the beef sold in supermarkets now is Australian, with 20 percent coming from the U.S. and the remainder from domestic producers. Though the American dollar is, for the moment at least, worth less in Japan than the Australian dollar, U.S. beef is more expensive than Australian beef due to the restrictions. In fact, the high yen is the only reason U.S. beef is at all affordable in Japan right now. By limiting U.S. beef to animals less than 21 months old, imports are seasonal and thus more expensive. Only about 20 percent of all cattle in the U.S. is slaughtered at less than 21 months, while 90 percent is less than 31 months. Consequently, almost all the animals slaughtered in the U.S. can be exported to Japan after the new year.
In an informal survey of supermarkets in our area, we found that “Aussie beef,” which is mostly “red” (i.e., less fat) and from the thigh, was going for about ¥100 per 100 grams. American beef was anywhere between ¥127 and ¥280 per 100 grams, depending on the cut. At the low end of the Japanese beef scale was inferior quality, rough-cut beef for sukiyaki at ¥180 for 300 grams and akami (red meat) steak at ¥398 per 100 grams. High grade, soft, fat-striped beef went for as much as ¥1,580 for 300 grams. The general feeling in Japan is that Australian cows are grass-fed and American cattle grain-fed, which accounts for the difference in fat content. This image is a gross generalization but it seems true, at least, that U.S. beef is fattier on average.
The news was especially good for the gyudon (beef bowl) chain Yoshinoya, which has stuck by American beef even with the restrictions while keeping its prices competitively low. A representative of the chain told the Asahi Shimbun, “If we can buy beef that’s at least 20 months’ old with lots of fat, we can offer products with our own original flavor.” Fans of Yoshinoya are legion, and insist that the gyudon it serves tastes like no other. The reason is its strict use of U.S. beef. Last spring, Japan Airlines boosted its comeback image among a certain cross-section of Japanese by announcing that it would be serving Yoshinoya gyudon on its flights for a limited time.
On one Japanese bulletin board, a commenter wrote how happy he was with the news: “I know it’s not good for you, but Yoshinoya’s gyudon is the best.” Fatty beef, of course, is less healthy than lean beef, but in any case Japanese beef lovers consume far less of the meat, about 10 kilograms a year each, than their American counterparts, who consume abut 44 kilograms a year. But it’s not just human health that’s adversely affected by fatty beef. The world may not be able to survive the growing taste for beef. But besides the damage that cattle farming does to the environment, beef will just become too expensive. It takes about 8 kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of beef, and most of that grain is corn, which is rising in price due to drought and demand.
A recent BBC report conjectured that soon farm-raised beef will be so dear that only the rich will be able to afford it. So much beef is grown far from where it’s sold that the rise in fuel prices will make exporting it prohibitively expensive. Japanese ranchers are already feeling the pinch. One in Hokkaido told the Asahi that when the price of beef drops following the relaxation of import restrictions, the price of his feed, also imported, will go up. “The influence on our business will be catastrophic.”