Radiation fears put Wagyu beef at risk

Rebecca TurnerCountryman

The safety of Japan’s food supply, including its lucrative Wagyu beef trade, is continuing to come into question, after radiation concerns caused by the Fukushima nuclear plant, damaged by the March tsunami.

Unsafe levels of caesium have been found in beef, as well as in vegetables, rice and drinking water.

As of August 11, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has reported six prefectures have detected higher than regulated level of caesium levels in beef including the Iwate, Miyagi, Akita, Tochigi and Yamagata prefectures.

Worries about the safety of beef have travelled far beyond the Fukushima prefecture with potentially contaminated rice straw having been shipped to numerous other parts of the country for cattle feed.

Japanese farmers are contending with their biggest crisis since an outbreak of mad cow disease in 2001 after the sale of meat from cattle fed with contaminated hay.

The consumer reaction to beef safety concerns caused cattle prices in Tokyo to slump, with the price of A-4 grade Wagyu meat dropping as low as 598 yen ($7.71) a kilogram on July 19 from 1623 yen on July 1, according to the Agriculture Ministry. Data from the Tokyo wholesale carcase market suggests a fall in A5 Wagyu beef from 1902 yen/kg on July 1, to 1567 yen/kg on July 22.

Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) Japan regional manager Melanie Brock said major Japanese barbecue beef companies had recently announced they would independently test all beef products before they were sold, amid rising consumer concerns

“For the past five months, people in Japan have become very wary and concerned about food safety, ” Ms Brock said.

“They want more information. Japanese consumers now know more about caesium levels and other food safety indicators than they would have in the past.”

Ms Brock said Japanese consumers had always had high expectations for food safety, however, concerns had risen since March.

“It is not just beef consumers are concerned about. It started out with water and now is affecting milk, vegetables and fruit, the next big issue will be rice with 20 prefectures now testing rice crops before they are harvested in September, ” she said.

Each day there is a new report of another type of food undergoing testing with mushrooms one of the latest reported.

Ms Brock said interest in imported food was increasing with place of origin one of the most important factors consumers looked for on food labels.

She said Australia was in a good position to supply the growing demand for imported food products; however, the high Australian dollar was having an impact on this demand.

“When it comes to beef we are competing against US product, ” Ms Brock said.

“After the earthquake and tsunami, there was quite a high inventory of Australian beef among importers. We are now starting to see this inventory worked through and I expect Australian beef imports will pick up soon.”

Over the past six months to June, Japan’s beef imports have risen 5 per cent and are expected to maintain this pace for the rest of the year amid radiation concerns.

US Meat Export Federation chief executive Philip Seng said US beef exports to Japan might rise 33 per cent to 140,000 tonnes this year.

However, for Australian beef exporters focused on the Japanese market, the high $A combined with increasing competition from the US has made this market extremely tough since May.

MLA reported that since the start of April, indicative chilled beef returns for Australian beef exports to Japan had declined 8 to 19 per cent in $A terms, which has been clearly transferred to lower prices for heavy steers in recent months.

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