TOKYO - Thick steaks and other dishes using generous amounts of beef used to be meals for special occasions in Japan, until the arrival of cheap imports made beef a food for the masses.
But with US beef imports banned following the discovery of a Holstein dairy cow with mad cow disease in Washington state last month, hungry Japanese and the restaurants that serve them are starting to wonder if beef might be off the menu again.
"If the current ban continues we will have to stop beef bowl sales in early February," said restaurant chain Yoshinoya and D&C Co Ltd in a message to customers on the Internet.
Yoshinoya dishes up bowls of rice topped with beef and onion simmered in soy sauce at 1,000 outlets across the country. Ninety-nine percent of its beef comes from the US.
"If they stop serving beef bowls, it will be a very big blow to my wallet," said a businessman who had just finished a 240 yen (US$2.27) lunch at Yoshinoya.
Japan is the biggest buyer of US beef, importing about US$1 billion worth annually. In the fiscal year that ended last March, Japan imported 534,000 tons of beef, of which 240,000 tons was from the US.
Meat versus fish
The import ban came just as demand for beef was gradually recovering from Japan's own first case of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), in September 2001.
Eight other cases have been confirmed since then, but the beef sector has picked up and, but for the US news, might have got more of a lift from worries about the safety of chicken after outbreaks of bird flu in several Asian countries including Japan.
More than 6,000 birds were found to have died of the highly infectious disease at a farm in the western prefecture of Yamaguchi earlier this month. The news caused shares in Kentucky Fried Chicken Japan to fall more than two per cent on the next trading day.
Consumption of beef has steadily risen in Japan over the years. Japanese ate an average 6.4 kg of beef in 2003, compared with 4.3 kg in 1984.
In 1987 then Agriculture Minister Tsutomu Hata claimed that Japanese intestines were longer than those of Westerners and therefore unsuited to digesting American beef, but that did nothing to ruin Japan's appetite for affordable foreign beef.
Changing lifestyles and diets have made beef a favourite on the dinner table.
"My grandchildren don't like picking small bones out of fish and besides, beef is much more filling," said 65-year old homemaker Atsuko Nakano.
A Japan Meat Information Service Centre survey shows Japanese have meat for dinner twice as often as fish.
"Meat appears on school lunch menus more often than fish and it's easier to cook than fish - that's one of the reasons it's preferred by homemakers," said Nakako Koga, the centre's research chief. "As long as it's safe, people will eat what is most convenient most often."
Where's the beef?
Top-grade domestic beef, which sells for more than US$20 per 100 grams, comes from beer-fed cows that are massaged daily to make the meat tender and richly marbled with fat.
Much of the foreign beef now sold in the country has been cultivated over the years to appeal to Japanese consumers' preference for soft meat.
With a major overseas supplier suddenly cut off, supermarkets have been scrambling to find alternative sources of beef.
Australia, which exported 262,000 tons to Japan last fiscal year, is trying to fill the gap. Wholesale Australian beef prices have jumped nearly 50 per cent since late December.
Aeon Co Ltd, which runs the Jusco supermarket chain, has imported 100 tons of beef per week from its own farm in Tasmania - more than double the usual amount - to help offset the shortage in the wake of the US ban.
"We wanted to alleviate consumer concerns about quality and beef prices and the response has been favourable," said Shigenori Toda of Aeon's meat department.
Since the 2001 BSE discovery and a series of other food-related scandals, many consumers have started to pay more attention to labels while grocery shopping.
"I avoid food items that contain beef stock or parts because they could be from America," said 29-year-old Sakiko Onoda. "But I still buy beef as long as it's not from the US."
With beef in such short supply, retail prices for the meat rose in the week of January 19-23 to their highest level since August, Japan's Agriculture Ministry said.
Meat prices in general have been inching higher but some see that as a sort of insurance for food safety.
"I can't help thinking that the item that costs more than 100 yen is safer than what is being sold for 99 yen," said Yukiko Matsuyama, a 45-year-old mother of three teenagers.
"We have to trust what is being sold to some point. After all, we have to eat."
(Agencies via Xinhua)