In Japan, Beef Business Sinks in a Sea of Skepticism

November 4, 2001 The New York Times by James Brooke
Across Japan this week, television stations ran advertisements saying beef was safe. Supermarkets posted red, white and blue signs inviting shoppers: "Please have worry-free beef, American beef." McDonald's ran full-page newspaper advertisements, announcing: "McDonald's uses only beef from Australia, where the mad cow disease does not exist."

But today, when Clara Yamaishi stopped for lunch at McDonald's in this Tokyo suburb, she chose a fillet of fish. "I have stopped eating beef," the 20-year-old college junior explained, blithely ignoring McDonald's $4 million advertising campaign to save hamburger sales at the company's 3,721 Japanese restaurants. "My mother is buying pork instead of beef. She is not sure if beef is safe or not, even if the government people say it is safe."

One case of mad cow disease discovered near here six weeks ago -- the first in Asia -- threatens to set Japan's culinary clock back to the time when this was an archipelago of fish eaters.

Over the last quarter-century, Japanese beef consumption has tripled -- to about 21 pounds per person annually. Japanese attachment to beef grew so strong that imports more than doubled in the last decade, despite a stiff 38.5 percent tariff on American beef. Last year, Japan was the largest single importer of American beef, buying $1.8 billion worth.

But with that one case of mad cow disease, Japanese public opinion has turned radically against beef, faster than a spooked herd of Holsteins.

The disease -- formally bovine spongiform encephalopathy or B.S.E. -- has been linked in Europe to a fatal human variant, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Here in Japan, beef sales have dropped, to half of what they were. Beef barbecue restaurants are changing their menus, discounting their prices, and in some cases, filing for bankruptcy. Pork and chicken prices are jumping while Japanese ranchers are watching their unsold cows grow older in expensive feed lots. More damaging, four polls conducted over the last two weeks by three companies indicated that about 60 percent of Japanese have reduced their consumption of beef or completely cut it from their diets.

Multiplied millions of times, Ms. Yamaishi's lunch choice today will echo all the way down the food chain this fall to ranchers in the American West.

"Almost half of Japan's population is either partly or totally saying they are going to avoid beef -- it is a major catastrophe," Phil Seng, president of the United States Meat Export Federation, said today by telephone from Denver. From his vantage as leader of the federation, an industry group, Mr. Seng said, "If this continues, it would mean $1 billion out of U.S. exports to Japan.

"Exports from the U.S. are already down at least 50 percent for October. We have packers who have all these containers they can't sell, trying to unload in different markets."

Japan's sudden aversion to beef has already knocked $36 off the average price of an American cow ready for slaughter. "That is the difference between profit and loss for a U.S. producer," Mr. Seng said.

Part of Japanese consumers' mood swing about beef has come because of a lack of trust in their government after it was revealed recently that in mid-June, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries suppressed a European Commission report warning that Japan was a likely candidate for the disease. Also, over the last month there have been a rash of "false positive cases" as well as a report, apparently untrue, that a teenage girl is dying of the human variant of the disease.

In an odd juxtaposition, health and agriculture officials announced on Oct. 18 that domestic beef was safe only hours after a government program began to test 1.3 million cows at 117 meat hygiene inspection centers across Japan.

"Beef declared safe as cow testing begins," ran one newspaper headline.

That conclusion was largely drawn from the fact that the government had placed in cold storage 13,000 tons of meat from cows slaughtered before testing began. It is debating whether to destroy this meat or test it for the disease.

With skepticism high, only eight housewives out of 100 interviewed by the Kyodo news service in late October said they believed the government and would start eating beef again.

The American government is worried that Japanese officials' carelessness is tarring imported beef as well. Almost all of Japan's imported beef come from the United States or Australia, two nations certified free of the fatal disease.

On Thursday, the American Embassy invited about 25 Japanese reporters to a briefing by two United States Department of Agriculture veterinarians flown here in an effort to turn the tide of public opinion.

"We have no evidence of B.S.E. in the United States," said Linda A. Detwiler, a senior veterinarian with the department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. "In the U.S. we have multiple fire walls. If one thing is not 100 percent, we have something behind it."

With Japanese consumers falling back to the comfortable safety of fish, it may be an uphill battle to bring back beef.

"I'm afraid of beef -- it's not safe," Etsuko Yano, an airline employee said on Thursday before ducking into a Tokyo sushi restaurant on the edge of Tsukiji fish market, sometimes called the largest fish market in the world.

"According to the television news, it is safe. Then I heard they had new cases. The information changed many times. I don't believe them anymore."

GRAPHIC: Photo: A sign in a Tokyo market says "We do not sell any beef from Chiba Prefecture," where a mad cow case has chilled Japan's appetite for beef. (Agence France-Presse) Map of Japan highlighting Makuhari: A single mad cow case in Makuhari sent Japan's beef sales reeling.

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