MIYAZAKI, Japan – It is a calamity for this quiet cattle community. A prized black calf born last fall will soon be killed, part of the mass destruction of livestock in Japan’s battle against its worst foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in at least a century.
The epidemic threatens to ravage the country’s trade in prime marbled beef, considered a top delicacy in this country. Miyazaki, on Japan’s southernmost main island of Kyushu, is one of Japan’s top beef producers and sends calves to other cattle-producing regions across the country – including the area that produces the famed Kobe brand.
“For me, this is the end,” said Tsuyoshi Kawasaki, 86, who has raised cattle in a small hamlet for 60 years. His calf, sired by a legendary local stud bull named Tadafuji, is not carrying the virus but must be destroyed because his barn falls within a 9.5-kilometer radius of the outbreak zone.
Two other cows, one pregnant with another Tadafuji calf, have also been marked for slaughter. “They were my livelihood,” he said. “If they weren’t, I wouldn’t have broken my back to raise them.”
Nobody knows how foot-and-mouth disease came to Miyazaki prefecture, home to thousands of small farms that supply the Japanese gourmet beef market. But the epidemic of the disease, which causes sometimes fatal fevers and blisters in livestock but very rarely affects humans, has reached critical levels in the region since it surfaced on April 20.
The outbreak has come as a blow to a beef industry that has long prided itself not on volume, but on quality. Brands like Miyazaki or Kobe beef are sold at a premium, valued for tenderness, flavour and a high-fat, marbled texture that results from years of selective breeding.
Though Japan is a net importer of beef, its exports have jumped more than tenfold in the past decade, to 4.5 billion yen in 2009 from 338 million yen in 2001, fanned by the popularity of Japanese fare like sukiyaki. High-grade beef can sell for about 3,500 yen, or US$38, for 3.5 ounces in key markets like the United States and Hong Kong.
Japanese beef could soon become more expensive for overseas consumers. The average price in Japan for calves sold in May jumped 13 percent from a year earlier to 399,000 yen, fanned by fears of a shortage.
Throughout Miyazaki last week, roads were dotted with sterilization stations staffed by men in protective suits, spraying cars with disinfectant. Visitors to public buildings were asked to dip their shoes in pools of antiseptic.
On Thursday, local officials conducted a new round of culling after four new outbreaks of the disease, including one in Miyakonojo, Japan’s largest producer of pork and beef in south Miyazaki. About 20,000 cattle have been culled in the wider Miyazaki prefecture, and another 14,250 more will be destroyed within days, the Health Ministry said.
In Tokyo, Prime Minister Naoto Kan called an emergency meeting of agriculture officials to discuss responses at the state level.
“We have reached a critical point, a perilous point,” he said. The government is preparing emergency funding of 100 billion yen, about US$1.1 billion, to stem the outbreak and support affected farmers, and Kan is scheduled to visit Miyazaki on Saturday.
The industry is a lucrative one for Japan’s small and midsize farmers. Kawasaki says he buys semen from top bulls for about 9,600 yen, or about US$105, and later sells the calves for almost 500,000 yen (US$5,450).
“The foot-and-mouth outbreak struck just as we started to promote the Miyazaki brand overseas,” said Shusuke Iwasaki, an agricultural supervisor at Miyazaki prefecture.
The region’s efforts have been especially focused on protecting its ‘super-studs’ – bulls that have been carefully selected to produce calves with the optimal fattiness.
The studs, picked by local agricultural officials in a multiyear selection process, are monitored for the quality of meat from their offspring. Only one or two bulls out of the nearly 39,000 bulls born in the prefecture each year eventually attain super-stud status. Tadafuji, the best super-stud in recent memory, sired 220,000 calves, local officials say.
Miyazaki authorities decided last month to evacuate the prefecture’s six super-studs to a farm deep in the mountains. But it was too late: The 7-year-old Tadafuji already showed signs of the disease and was killed, to the horror of the region’s farmers.
Tadafuji’s death cast a shadow over the fate of the five remaining super-studs, which had shared a cow shed. One of the prefecture’s 49 junior studs soon also showed signs of the disease.
Local farmers begged the government to keep the studs alive, gathering 6,000 signatures and declaring that killing the junior studs would cripple cattle breeding in Miyazaki.
The five other super-studs were declared free of disease and spared destruction. But the 49 junior studs were killed on May 31, wiping out an entire generation of top Miyazaki bulls.
“My mind went blank; I thought that was the end of road for Miyazaki’s cattle,” said Masanori Aratake, an adviser at the Miyazaki Prefecture Livestock Association, which helps run the region’s breeding program.
It is the second time Miyazaki has been hit by foot-and-mouth disease, which Japanese farmers once boasted would never afflict the country. Before a much smaller outbreak in 2000, Japan had not seen the disease for 92 years.
Some experts say that Japanese cattle farming methods – which include keeping animals in small, indoor pens – may have contributed to the disease’s spread. Local authorities have also struggled to find enough land in cramped Japan to bury the carcasses of culled cattle, slowing down the process and putting healthy herds at risk.
Experts also say the practice of allowing entire populations to be sired by a handful of studs could be risky.
“There’s a debate over whether we should be more open to mixing our herd with cattle from other parts of Japan” to produce sturdier livestock, said Reiji Sato, a local veterinarian.
Meanwhile, Kobe is scrambling to makes sure the outbreak does not reach its celebrated herd, 450 kilometres away on Japan’s main island of Honshu.
Kobe has dispersed its top bulls to reduce the chances of all the studs getting sick, said Kenichiro Tominaga, head of livestock research at the region’s centre for livestock technology. Kobe has also stocked up on two month’s worth of frozen stud semen, Tominaga said.
Miyazaki is now intent on saving its youngest generation of studs. In mid-May, a group of 18 young bulls was evacuated to Takachiho, in Miyazaki prefecture’s northernmost corner.
The remote area holds a special place in Miyazaki’s beef industry: Yasuhira, the bull that sired the champion stud Tadafuji, was raised there. A life-sized replica of Yasuhira graces Takachiho’s newest beef restaurant, while bumper stickers declare Takachiho “No. 1 in Japan” for beef.
“We’re determined to protect these bulls. We’re doing everything to shut out the disease,” said Shingo Uchikura, Takachiho’s mayor. “It’s a battle against an invisible enemy.”