Human folly created mad cow disease--now it's time to heed nature's lessons

December 13, 2001 The Daily Yomiuri (Tokyo)  by Yasuo Shinomiya
There are more than 2,100 yakiniku barbecue restaurants in the food-loving city of Osaka. Tokyo has as many yakiniku restaurants, but in terms of size and population, Osaka seems to boast twice as many such establishments.

Residents of Osaka vie in their knowledge of tasty yakiniku served at inexpensive, happening spots. When I was a young reporter covering the police beat, a local police officer shared his knowledge of his area's best yakiniku restaurants with me, and yakiniku has since become my favorite food. The history of yakiniku in Japan is relatively new. Right after World War II, when the nation was in the midst of a serious food shortage, Korean residents of Osaka opened small canteens at which Japanese became familiar with their cuisine, including yakiniku.

During the period of high economic growth, Korean-style yakiniku restaurants proliferated throughout the country. The bubble economy era saw the emergence of several upscale yakiniku restaurants that catered to those entertaining on expense accounts.

In less than 60 years, yakiniku has established itself as one of the nation's most popular foods. But the yakiniku business has been suffering terribly since September, when mad cow disease--or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)--was first detected here. The impact of BSE is growing worse.

From time to time, I take a late lunch at a well-known yakiniku restaurant in Osaka's bustling Umeda district. These days, it is a lonely experience as the 50-table restaurant attracts just a handful of customers. I often have the whole place to myself. Although this time of the year is usually a busy one for restaurants as they provide venues for year-end parties, the restaurant's reservation board is pitifully blank.

A waiter lamented, "Nobody would believe that this place was bustling with customers this time last year." He woefully recounted how the restaurant's sales for the past three months had sagged to less than half those for the same period last year.

"We are promoting the restaurant for year-end parties through various connections," he said. "But this year, groups cancel reservations if even a single member raises an objection."

The yakiniku business in the Kansai region is now in critical condition. A major yakiniku restaurant chain, saddled with debts of about 2 billion yen, has filed with the Osaka District Court for protection from creditors under a civil rehabilitation law. A meat wholesaler with debts of about 1 billion yen has applied for voluntary bankruptcy with the same court.

There are three lessons to be learned from the mad cow scare. First, the initial response to a problem is crucial. When the government announced the incineration of Japan's first cow diagnosed with mad cow disease, it failed to tell the public that the cow's meat and bones had been processed into meat and bone meal (MBM) for cattle feed.

When this fact came to light, consumers developed a distrust of the government. The government had earlier received warnings from abroad about the possibility of cattle becoming infected, but it was slow to take action. Therefore, the public remains distrustful of the government, although two months have passed since it enforced a nationwide inspection of all cattle and allowed cattle farms to market only the meat and intestines of animals that have been confirmed BSE-free.

Second, we have to accept that mad cow disease was created by humans. Mad cow disease differs from viral or bacterial diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease. Scientists say that mad cow disease is caused by a protein called prion that turns pathogenic through mutations inside an animal's body. As scrapie, a similar disease, strikes sheep, it is generally believed that cattle fed the offal of infected sheep developed the disease and the infection spread. The disease was first detected only in 1996, in Britain. The disease has a long period of latency and the offal and bones of infected cattle had been exported to various countries as MBM.

As children, we learned at school that the cow is a herbivore that slowly consumes fibrous grasses, which are digested in the animal's long intestine. I still remember a textbook illustration of a cow's four stomachs. To hasten the process of raising and fattening cattle to get their milk and meat on the market quickly, farmers began to feed cattle high-protein, high-calorie compound feeds containing MBM. This new feeding method, developed by humans, created a new disease.

Third, nature may be taking revenge on humans for continuing to flout its laws. The outbreak of mad cow disease, which affects humans as well, resulted from the feeding of meat to herbivorous animals. In this connection, we must reflect on our continuous pursuit of efficiency based on the market mechanism in the 20th century. We have confined not only cattle, but also chickens and pigs to factory farms and received the benefits of the mass production of food. Maybe we should take mad cow disease as a 21st century warning against our anthropocentric ways.

The parties to see out 2001 will focus on nabemono--simmering hot pots of fish and vegetables--as revelers stay away from yakiniku. Yet nabemono reminds us of the dangers of the expensive delicacy fugu (blowfish). As everyone knows, certain organs in fugu are poisonous, but once these are removed, fugu is quite safe--and very tasty indeed.

Likewise, only the eyes and a small portion of the intestines of cattle infected with mad cow disease pose a danger.

With infected animals disposed of after inspection, only safe beef is supposedly on the market. Nonetheless, I am afraid the mad cow disease scare may drive tasty, inexpensive yakiniku restaurants into extinction.

Shinomiya is regional news editor of The Yomiuri Shimbun, Osaka.

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