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Wed, Aug 30, 2006 - Page 10 News List

US beef battling to make a comeback

MAD COW HANGOVER US product is freely available in Japan, but consumers seem wary about putting it on their tables, preferring instead to turn to Australian or local beef

AP , TOKYO

Chief sales clerk Tomohiro Kuriki arranges packs of beef imported from Canada and Australia at a Hanamasa Co supermarket in Tokyo on Aug. 18.

PHOTO: AP

The Japanese restaurant chain Zenshoku said it would serve US beef starting yesterday, a first among this nation's restaurants since the ban on US beef was lifted last month.

Zenshoku Co, which specializes in Korean-style barbecue dishes said in a statement on its Web page that it plans to offer US beef starting with dinner last night.

US beef has only been trickling in to Japan since the easing of the ban, imposed in 2003 due to mad cow fears.

Many Japanese are worried about the safety of US beef, which has yet to be sold at Japanese supermarkets -- except for the nation's five Costco stores, run by the Japan unit of US warehouse retailer Costco Wholesale Corp.

Zenshoku operates about 80 restaurants mostly in the Tokyo area and western prefecture of Osaka, where it is based. It has carried out inspections and was confident about the safety of US beef, which it said would be served at 57 of its restaurants, spokeswoman Tae Okuda said.

"We want our customers to enjoy delicious meals at a reasonable price," the company said in a statement. "American beef in terms of taste, tenderness, health concerns and pricing is a good candidate for use in barbecue dishes."

On the menu, the various dishes clearly list the origin of the beef -- US, Australia or Japan. A serving of US roast beef costs ¥480 (US$4), while a bigger serving of a variety of cuts costs ¥1,200, it said. The restaurant also offers an all-you-can-eat course starting at about ¥2,000.

Japan was once the top destination for US beef, importing US$1.4 billion worth of the meet a year. But that was before Tokyo's decision in December 2003 to ban US beef imports after the first case of mad cow disease in the US.

The US government has repeatedly said the beef is safe because of stringent checks. But such assurances have done little to allay the fears of Japanese consumers about mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a degenerative nerve disease in cattle.

Eating contaminated meat products has been linked to the rare but fatal human variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in more than 150 deaths. The outbreak, mostly in Britain, peaked in the 1990s.

The ban on US beef was eased in December last year, but imposed again in January after prohibited spinal bones were found in a veal shipment -- an error by US plant workers and a government inspector who didn't realize veal cuts with backbone eaten in the US are considered at risk for mad cow disease in Japan.

That error made Japanese consumers even more suspicious about the safety of US meat.

Even Seiyu Ltd, the Japan unit of US retail giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc, with about 400 stores nationwide, isn't selling US beef.

Some Japanese suspect the government caved in to political pressures from Washington, Japan's No. 1 ally, to let in possibly tainted products.

US beef sells for a fraction of the cost of Japanese beef because of higher labor costs in Japan and the economies of scale at US farms. But Australian beef competes well in pricing, and the Australian cattle industry has jumped right into the opportunity presented by the stumbling of US beef exporters.

The industry is aggressively promoting the safety of Australian beef, noting that Australia has never had a case of mad cow. Australian cattle ranches have switched to feeding cows grain, instead of grass, to appeal to the Japanese palate for fat-laced meat.

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