Stuart Braun; Kiely Ramos

One mad cow and Japans beef industry is bust. Stuart Braun investigates the decline of a bull market.   


September 11 is a day few will forget, but in Japan, terrorism wasn't the only issue dominating the national psyche. As the world reeled at events in the US, the Japanese were dealing with a different form of horror, an epidemic that, having already infected Europe, was making a decisive, and unprecedented, raid into the Far East. Two months on, the public has successfully avoided the mad cow's bite, however an air of doubt lingers, haunting beefeaters the nation over. Eat a hamburger and meet your maker, or choose instead to pig out? Metropolis presses the flesh in the search for some real answers.


In a nation that today consumes hamburgers with as much, if not more, relish than sushi, news that a cow in Chiba Prefecture, Northeast of Tokyo, had contracted Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, sent shock waves throughout the community. Caused when cattle eat infected meat-and-bone meal, or crushed animal carcasses, the human variant of BSE is a fatal brain-wasting disease (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease or CJD) that killed over 100 people in Europe during the mid to late '90s. But while meat sales in Europe weren't adversely effected by the outbreak, in Japan people are avoiding cows as much as planes. Following the first positive testing for BSE, subsequent tests have cleared thousands of local bovine of the disease. Yet by early November, plunging overall beef consumption (beef sales at Aeon, Japan's third largest supermarket chain, were down 40 percent in October) is showing scant signs of recovery and once booming yaki niku restaurants (which most often use local beef) remain empty—or worst still, closed.

During the initial days of Asia's first mad cow outbreak, Japan's politicians staged set piece beef-eats for the media in an effort to quell community anxiety. It didn't work. A Kyodo News poll, released on Oct 29, showed that 56 percent of the public remain unwilling to cower to government promises of BSE-free meat. The disbelief might be justified. Months before the scare, Japanese authorities blocked publication of a report, published by the European Commission, predicting an imminent BSE outbreak in Japan. The fact that Japan imported animal feed, including meat-and-bone meal, at the peak of the British mad cow crisis has long been avoided by a government who has been forced to make a very sudden about face on the issue. Earlier this year, Japan banned all cattle-related products from the EU; however last year it imported around 55,000 tons of meat-and-bone meal from Denmark and Italy, which have since suffered BSE outbreaks. 

All quiet at the beef counter

It's the mums and dads who aren't buying the government's PR safety pitch. At the Mo-Mo-Paradise shabu shabu chain, business is brisk at Shibuya and Shinjuku stores filled with nonchalant teenagers and 20-somethings who want a cheap protein fix. Meanwhile, stores in Hachioji and Jiyogaoka, bastions of " middle Japan," are still suffering a 30-40 percent decline in sales. The real source of the panic, says Michio Akimoto, Executive Producer of the Wondertable restaurant empire—host to some of Tokyo's major beef eats including Mo-Mo-Paradise, Brazilian grill house, Barbacoa, and Korean barbecue chain, Hizen—is the media. Japan's infamous press corps has been successful in blowing the mad cow scare out to epic proportions. The reality for mum who watches a lot of day time TV is hours of file footage (circa Britain 1995) of mad cows wasting away on paddocks and young children dying in hospital beds as the result of an innocent salami sandwich. None of this is actually happening, and is unlikely to happen in Japan, considering that over two-thirds of beef is imported from Australia and the US—who have thus far avoided the specter of BSA—and that very few domestic cows are fed the evil meat-and-bone meal cocktail.  

But who are you to believe: restaurant proprietors, the beef industry, the media, or worst still, the government? The latter's sudden shift from " no risk" to " damage control" mode is confusing consumers. A week before the Kyodo report was released, 160 Japanese companies recalled more than 1500 products made from " suspect" cow parts—a move that followed a Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare edict tightening regulations surrounding the use of cow and sheep in medicines and cosmetics. Was this a token gesture, and when can blanket claims of total safety be trusted? Some experts are saying the risk is real, that Japanese farming practices have long been suspect, and that this might be the shake-up the industry needed. It seems both the public and the government are trying to run but neither can hide from an epidemic, which, in PR terms, is already out of control.


Meat and greet
With up market beef chains such as Lawry's Prime Ribs having suffered a 50 percent decline in business in the month following the outbreak, restaurant proprietors are making a big effort to allay public fears—and to stay in business. A key component of the Wondertable empire, Lawry's is selling 20-30 percent less steak two months after the initial mad cow storm. Lawry's is typical of a profusion of restaurants who are making loud promises—see signs pasted over the front of most restaurants in Tokyo—that they use only US and Australian beef. But while the slightly better-informed foreign community is taking refuge in international chains who have staked their reputation on imported cow (Outback Steakhouse proprietor, Chris Crawford, says he can track the origin of every steak that is served), the locals are maintaining a blanket moratorium. " Many more foreigners are coming to our restaurant, but the Japanese customers have really dropped off," says Akimoto. For curry and beef-bowl stores who rely on local product, their gyudon is selling so badly that billions of yen have already been lost. Wondertable closed its Sutaminaen yaki niku chain in Osaka in the wake of the scare. " Our President will not forgive the Japanese Government," offers Akimoto. But while Akimoto says that Barbacoa, Lawry's and the like won't be changing their menu, trying instead to educate customers's about the safety of their product, he also notes that business is up 10-20 percent in Italian and seafood restaurants included in the Wonderland pantheon. It seems there are losers, and winners, during a mad cow scare, with fish, chicken and pork currently enjoying a mini-renaissance in Tokyo's restaurants.

The already devastating reverberations of the mad cow tremor have extended well beyond Japan. Australia, which supplied one-third of Japan's beef last year, is justifiably concerned about the effects on the overall market, and promptly sent its meat and livestock generals into the Japanese media fray to ease public concern. Meanwhile, a recent press seminar at the American Embassy saw the US's top " BSE Prevention" bureaucrats extolling to the Japanese the virtues of a good clean US steak. For the Australian's, a large portion of their beef is ending up in McDonald's hamburgers. But despite statements by the fast-food giant that all its meat comes from mad cow-free climes of down under, McDonald's Co (Japan) Ltd shares fell sharply after the initial scare. Elsewhere, Japan's top meat dealer, Starzen Co Ltd, saw it's share price plummet 15 percent, while beef-bowl outlet Yoshinoya lost more than 13 percent of its share value, despite announcements that its beef was imported from the US. While public opinion is warming slightly to repeated government and industry calls for calm, the Japanese are loath to trust anybody, and while McDonald's have increased non-beef choices on its menu, the question remains—to beef or not to beef?


Steak your claim
The reality for most Japanese beef is that cows are not eating gyukoppun, or animal feed, the prime suspect in the current mad cow debacle. Producers of gourmet beef—which constitutes a large part of Japan's beef produce—such as Kobe and Matsuzaka, say their cows are disease-free because they are fed top-quality imported straw and organic feed. Matsuzaka cows, in fact, owe their characteristic marbled fat to beer. Still, the reality for mum is not rationality but media images of death and disease. As Marshall McLuhan once said, the medium is the message, and in this case, the medium is panic. Few news reports have highlighted the fact that while 3000-3500 gallons of milk from Japan's lone infected cow were sold before it was slaughtered, its meat—the prime carrier of BSE—did not make it to the supermarket shelf. Meanwhile, the health department promptly rejected the recent rumor—again given a good dose of media hype—that a teenage girl in a Tokyo area hospital has contracted new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Similarly, rumors of a second suspected case of mad cow disease, spotted at a wholesale Tokyo meat market in mid-October, were also quickly quashed by authorities. Visit any supermarket, be it Kinokunia, Marusho or the local combini, and you'll get plenty of assurances that the beef has undergone rigorous testing. If you want to eat beef, do so at your risk, but the risk is very small.



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399: To beef or not to beef
One mad cow and Japan's beef industry is bust.
398: In touch with tradition

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397: Captain cooks

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396: Ghost town

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395: Generation Next

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394: Sister act
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393: Reel time
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392: Lap it up
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391: Everything old is new
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390: Cooking the books
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389: Up from the underground
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388: First wave
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387: Water world
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386: Open house
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385: A moveable feast
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384: Hair
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383: Summer in the city
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382: Tokyo Tomorrow
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381: From zero to hero
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380: Island escapade
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379: Open-air fare
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378: Reel story
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377: Sonic relief
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376: All at sea
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375: Your cup of tea
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374: No time to waste
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373: Freetown
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372: Broken record
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371: Bottoms up
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370: Admit one
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369: After a fashion
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368: Bandwidth wagon
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367: Just for sports
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366: Life's a hitch
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365: Altered state
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364: The Fringe Club
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363: Take two Tomatos
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362: Stage left
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361: The lowdown on TC
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360: A reversal of fortune
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359: Funny Valentine
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358: Two-faced
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357: Read all about it comes to Japan
356: Daikanyama
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355: Wash out
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354: Means to an end
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352/3: Last Laugh
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351: It's a wrap
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350: Cable ready
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