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Mad Cow Disease Scare Hits Beef-Loving Japanese Hard

By Lars Nicolaysen     Nov 18, 2001 in Lifestyle
MATSUZAKA (dpa) - Mikichi Kubo shoves a beer bottle into the mouth of his cow, and the farmer has to hold firmly on to it, because the animal is guzzling at it so strongly. The cow is drinking "Kirin Lager", one of Japan's best beers.
"When she drinks beer, she again gets appetite back again," says Kubo. This is important, for Fukuyama - that's the cow's name - is, like all his 15 cows, of the Matsuzaka breed, famous for their tender meat.
For all three years of their existence, the cows are intensively cared for by Kubo and his wife. They see to it that the animals always feed wll and don't get sick. And if a visitor comes by, Kubo will first brush down the animal so that it looks nice.
Kubo's animals are "wagyu" cattle, or "Japanese cows", the generic term given to all the indigenous breeds of cattle in Japan. Among them, the Matsuzaka enjoys the reputation of being the very best among the best. The farmers are proud of this and so take very special care.
"They are like our children," the 72-year-old Kubo says while gently stroking Fukuyama's neck. "Never in the more than 50 years that I have been raising cattle have I ever eaten breakfast before my cows have."
Given the love which farmers have for their cows in Japan, it was a "huge shock", Kubo says, when the news spread about the first case ever of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), a fatal neurological illness commonly referred to as mad cow disease, in early September.
For the first time outside Europe, a Japanese cow in Chiba prefecture near Tokyo was found to have the BSE disease. Since then, beef sales have dropped massively. Beef vanished from school cafeteria menus, and restaurants began importing Australian beef.
"I got calls from colleagues who were suddenly worried about their future," said Kubo, who is also chairman of the Matsuzaka Farmers Association.
It may be that some weeks later the Agriculture Ministry in Tokyo said it had started to test all meat cattle for BSE, while at the same time then asserting that all domestic beef was safe.
But critics call this a whitewash.
"This by no means is to say that everything is safe," complains Masanori Fukushima, a Kyoto University medical professor. There were, after all, animals which had already been processed and whose meat is now on sale in the supermarkets.
As early as last January, Fukushima had written a letter to the ministries of health and agriculture warning of the dangers of BSE and other infection risks. But nothing happened, and the ministries acted as though Japan was immune against BSE.
The only thing the Agriculture Ministry did was to recommend to farmers not to use meat and bone meal feeds. But it took no further steps. But up till 1996 Japan did import such meal feeds from Britain - 10 years after the mad-cow disease first was discovered there.
"I could never imagine that something like this could happen in Japan," Kubo the farmer says. His own Matsuzaka cows are fed only the best - wheat, pressed soya beans and maize. Given such a rich diet, after awhile the animals lose their appetite, which is why he then gives them beer. But bone meal? - never, says the farmer.
Just how the cow which was discovered in August with BSE got the disease is something which authorities are still unable to explain several weeks later. This is one reason why consumers are so greatly worried.
What was worse was the fact that the Agriculture Ministry first said that the BSE-infected cow had been burned. But soon after, it had to admit that the animal had been processed into feed and sold.
Premier Junichiro Koizumi, in the face of the uncertainty and anger in the population, was forced to criticise his farm and health ministers for not having properly dealt with the crisis.
In the wake of the BSE crisis, the prices for Matsuzaka meat have not been affected, officials say.
Because of the extreme input of care and labour for the Matsuzaka cows, resulting in the high quality of meat characterised by the marble-like thin stripes of fat, the price of the meat in a specialty restaurant in Osaka costs between 2,500 and 5,000 yen (21-42 dollars) per 100 grams.
But not all the cattle in Japan are given the special treatment that Matsuzakas enjoy. The total cattle population is estimated at 4.6 million, and now despite the assurances given by the authorities, many Japanese remain wary.
A survey taken by the Kyodo agency of 100 housewives after a recent "safety declaration" issued by the authorities showed that 60 per cent said they would continue to avoid beef. Many said they suspected the government was trying to cover up the BSE scandal.
As a result, many people have switched to pork and poultry, and one butcher has made a specialty of producing German-style sausages. His business is doing well, the man said, while those colleague who specialise in beef products are "having a tough time".
The butcher, who asked not to be identified, said he hoped that now that the government has tested the country's animals and declared the meat to be safe, that beef would again be put back onto school menus.
But Kyoto University professor Fukushima is warning about the existing dangers, noting that BSE cannot be diagnosed among young animals.
"Consumers can only protect themselves by not eating any more beef," he said.
More about Mad cow, Diseases, Japan