Arrests highlight concern for Japan’s wagyu beef stock

Wagyu cows are seen at a breeding farm in Miyazaki Prefecture.

The recent arrests of two men attempting to smuggle fertilized eggs and sperm from prized Japanese cattle out of the country highlighted Japan’s lack of rules protecting the genetic stock for its famous wagyu beef.

The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry formed a panel in February that has started to discuss protections, but there are a number of problems standing in the way.

“Wagyu cows are a national treasure that are the result of repeated improvements by livestock farmers. I hope [the authorities] get to the bottom of the incident and do something about it soon,” said a 56-year-old livestock farmer from Gunma Prefecture who sells sperm from seed bulls to other livestock farmers.

The farmer said that every two or three months, he receives a call or an email from Chinese or Singaporean merchants offering cash for bull sperm. He refuses them all.

The Osaka prefectural police arrested the two smugglers in June for attempting to take 365 storage straws worth of fertilized eggs and other material to China.

“I can sell to anyone legally, but a reckless sale could affect the domestic livestock industry. Some might accept orders from overseas. The arrests are probably just the tip of the iceberg,” the Gunma farmer said.

Demand for wagyu is growing overseas thanks to its reputation as high-quality, tender beef. The value of Japanese beef exports grew about four-fold in the five years to 2018.

The livestock industry and central government are both concerned that if wagyu genetic stock is taken outside Japan to breed cattle to produce similar quality meat, it would affect the value of the wagyu brand and impact exports, damaging the industry.

Yet there are no domestic laws protecting wagyu genetic resources.

The farm ministry explored ways of protecting those resources for wagyu and other livestock in 2006-07, but decided not to implement any measures due to wide disparities in meat quality and other factors, even between calves from the same parents, and the difficulty of certifying the results of quality improvements as intellectual property.

Since then, no further progress has been made on creating rules to protect the much-desired meat.

In the latest incident, the two men were arrested for allegedly not going through the quarantine required by the Domestic Animal Infectious Diseases Control Law, a last-resort move.

“We’ve relied on the belief that people are inherently good, and that no one would try to take away the fruits of our labor,” a senior agriculture ministry official said.

Currently, only a limited number of facilities, such as prefecture-certified livestock artificial insemination stations, are allowed to collect and sell fertilized cattle eggs and sperm.

To ensure artificial insemination is done properly, certificates attesting to bloodlines and other details must be exchanged at the time of sale, though there are no restrictions on who can buy the products.

Calls to strictly monitor distribution are often expressed at the ministry’s panel on the matter.

The fertilized eggs and other materials in the men’s possession were apparently sold to them during the distribution stage by a Tokushima Prefecture livestock farmer who also runs an artificial insemination station.

Some have pointed out that it would be difficult to demand breeding farms, which are the end users of fertilized eggs and sperm, or even farmers who are about to close their business implement strict management for such materials. One person involved in the livestock industry said, “Introducing effective countermeasures will be difficult.”

The ministry panel also plans to discuss export restrictions. However, in addition to there being no international regulations on protecting livestock, restricting trade could violate World Trade Organization rules.

Rising popularity in U.S., China

SHANGHAI — Both the United States and China have a substantial need for wagyu genetic resources.

Although China has banned beef imports from Japan since a 2001 outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as mad cow disease, such beef can nevertheless be obtained through other countries.

Wagyu has become especially popular among wealthy Chinese, and Japanese-style yakiniku restaurants have opened in cities throughout the country.

The most popular dish at one Japanese-style yakiniku restaurant in Shanghai goes for ¥5,000 per 100 grams, with a source from the restaurant claiming, “There are customers who will pay anything for good beef.”

“We can’t call it ‘wagyu’ because of the import ban, so a lot of restaurants call it ‘premium beef’ or something else,” said the owner of another yakiniku restaurant.

In expectation of high demand, plans have reportedly emerged to produce wagyu domestically in China. Some ranches have boosted their profiles by promoting on their websites cattle that are genetically related to wagyu. According to a livestock dealer, many in his business want to produce wagyu cattle.

From the 1970s through the 1990s, live wagyu and wagyu sperm could legally be exported from Japan to the United States. It could then be exported to Australia. In these countries, it was interbred with local cattle.

Beef from interbred cattle is branded as “Wagyu” and has won popularity overseas. There are about 430,000 such cattle in Australia and 90,000 in the United States. In recent years, efforts have been made to preserve and enhance the quality of Wagyu-branded beef, leading to a reported increase in demand for genetic resources.

According to a source in the Japanese livestock industry, livestock dealers overseas are seeking to deepen ties with their Japanese counterparts.

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