Although Japan announced its decision to resume beef imports from the United States last week following a prolonged â€˜mad cowâ€™ scare, it could be some time before many Japanese consumers choose to have American beef at their dinner tables.
Consumers, restaurants and retail outlets are keeping a wary eye on American beef, despite assurances by their government that such meat is safe from the deadly disease Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), which affects the central nervous system of cattle and is thought to trigger a similar incurable disease in humans known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
In a recent survey by NTT Resonant Co. in Tokyo, 71 percent of Japanese consumers ages 14 to 84 said they were either â€œopposingâ€ beef imports or â€œrather opposedâ€ to resumption of the trade, mainly over concern for safety.
An additional 61 percent said they would not or would try not to consume U.S. beef, while an overwhelming 96 percent said they wanted disclosure of beef origin in restaurants and at retailers to be required by government regulation.
Japan first closed its market to U.S. beef in December of 2003, following failed tests for BSE. A partial lift on the ban was approved in December of last year, allowing beef imports from cows younger than 21 months. A requirement was also that parts at higher risk of infection, including spinal cords, be removed.
In January of this year, Japan demanded that it be allowed to inspect U.S. meatpacking facilities more thoroughly and also that it could check all incoming shipments for some time before approving the resumption of U.S. beef imports.
However imports were banned once again just a month later when backbone was found in a shipment of veal at Japanâ€™s Narita airport. Surveys show that the incident significantly raised distrust among the Japanese regarding U.S. products.
Criticism toward the Japanese government rose, with officials being accused of appearing to disregard public concerns. Toshiko Kanda of the National Liaison Committee of Consumer Organizations, which includes some 40 consumer groups, insisted that the government inspect U.S. meatpacking facilities more thoroughly to avoid the risky beef parts from being imported and consumed in Japan.
After a month long inspection, 33 of 35 meatpacking plants in the U.S. received permission last Thursday to begin beef exports to Japan.
A remaining plant will be added to the approved list, provided that the U.S. government monitors its activities for two months, according to The Japan Times. The other one will be added after it completes an in-house manual for shipping beef to Japan, according to media reports.
Restaurant and Retail Response
Despite the official lift on the ban, most restaurant and retail firms are watching each other and customer reactions before making a move.
Yoshinoya D&C Co., the major operator of the gyudon beef bowl chain, is one of the few companies who look forward to offering American beef. The company announced on their official Web site last Thursday that it would take two months to resume beef bowl sales.
Zensho Co. President Kentaro Ogawa criticized Yoshinoya last Thursday publicly saying, We can't use (U.S. beef) unless they guarantee its safety through such steps as blanket testing and banning the use of bone meal feed. Zensho operates the Sukiya beef bowl chain.
Matsuya Foods Co., another major beef bowl chain, said it will consider using U.S. beef by observing beef availability, prices and consumer response. Most restaurants have no plans to sell the beef, as they have already been in business with beef suppliers from Australia and China after the first beef ban.
Many supermarket chains, including Ito-Yokado Co., Aeon Co. and Daiei Inc., said they have no plans to sell U.S. beef for next several months or longer. A spokesperson for supermarket chain Ito-Yokado Co. said As long as our customers are feeling U.S. beef is unsafe, we do not plan to sell it at our stores. Retailers tend to be passive because their main customers are housewives, who care about food safety for their family.
Major family restaurant chain operator Skylark Co. said that it has enough beef supply from countries such as Australia for the next four months and currently has no plans to import U.S. beef.
Since the first ban of U.S. beef in December 2003, the amount of beef consumption in Japan has been decreasing. The consumption dropped from 933,000 tons in 2002 to 806,000 tons in 2005. Price, in contrast, remains expensive. The annual average wholesale price increased by 37 percent to 1,336 Yen per kilogram ($5.30/lb) in 2005 from 975Yen ($3.87) in 2002.
Tatsuo Iwama, the managing director of Japan Meat Importers & Exporters Association, expects that despite the resumption of beef imports, the current price will remain stable until another remarkable change in trend.