- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 11, 2005

TOKYO (Kyodo) — Imagine McDonald’s not selling hamburgers but still doing business with only french fries and some “alternative” main dish — say, pizza.

It may sound like something that wouldn’t happen in a millennium, but it has been no joke for Yoshinoya D&C; Co. for the past year and a half, except that the main item served by the major Japanese fast-food chain is not hamburgers but an indigenous dish called “gyudon” — a bowl of rice topped with stewed and seasoned beef.

Yoshinoya had to stop serving the product synonymous with its name in February 2004 because its beef stock ran out. Three other major Japanese chains serving gyudon, first sold by Yoshinoya more than 100 years ago, also removed beef bowls from their menus the same month because their stocks ran out.

An import ban on American beef imposed by the Japanese government at the end of 2003, after the discovery of the first case of mad cow disease in the United States, gave Japanese consumers a chance to realize how uncompetitive Japanese beef is in terms of price. All of the nation’s four biggest gyudon chains had relied almost entirely on cheaper U.S. beef for their dishes.

The Japanese reacted keenly to the disappearance of this popular fast food from the streets. TV stations and newspapers ran special features and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi commented when Yoshinoya announced that it had to stop serving the dish. A man was arrested after he ordered gyudon at a Yoshinoya outlet and ripped an employee’s apron in anger at his order having been declined.

All the gyudon chains except Yoshinoya later reintroduced the product, turning to beef from Australia, China and Mexico, and their earnings that had been trimmed by the absence of gyudon subsequently recovered.

But 18 months after the removal of gyudon, Yoshinoya is still not serving it, even at the cost of profits. The company recorded its first red ink in 24 years and is eagerly waiting for the government to lift the ban. One of its main items now is “butadon,” or pork bowls, introduced to make up for gyudon’s absence.

Yoshinoya President Shuji Abe, 55, said he has no plans to bring back the product at the company’s 1,000 outlets in Japan using any beef other than American beef.

“Their homogeneity,” Mr. Abe said when asked about the main appeal of U.S. beef. American meatpackers, he said, employ high technology in their massive businesses with which their Japanese peers cannot compare.

“The American system is critically different from the Japanese system, in processing, distributing and almost all other aspects.”

Mr. Abe said Japanese beef can be high in quality, but can vary. In addition, it is difficult under the Japanese distribution system to trade only beef taken from certain parts, such as short plate.

Yoshinoya opened its first gyudon outlet in 1899 in Tokyo’s fish market, providing a handy meal to fussy fish brokers.

The company quickly expanded in the 1970s after introducing a modern franchise system. In 1975, it became one of the first Japanese restaurant chains to branch out to the United States, selling gyudon as “Beef Bowl.” Yoshinoya also operates in Australia, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore.

The key to its success was American short plate custom-made to meet “Yoshinoya specifications.”

The designations detail how to cut, remove bones and trim excess fat from beef and pack it in boxes for exclusive use as gyudon by Yoshinoya.

Mr. Abe said the specifications are the product of the company’s nearly quarter-century partnership with U.S. meatpackers.

“In fact, the Yoshinoya specifications have become the Japan specifications,” Mr. Abe said. Before the import ban, Yoshinoya had been the biggest Japanese importer of U.S. short plate.

Japan’s prolonged import ban on U.S. beef over the mad cow scare has frustrated U.S. meatpackers and some legislators, because Japan was the largest import market for U.S. beef before the ban.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns has warned that Congress may “lose patience” and step up retaliatory pressure on Japan after its August recess if Tokyo fails to lift the ban.

As the issue could create major bilateral trade friction, Japan and the United States reached a compromise deal in October, with Tokyo agreeing to resume imports of U.S. beef taken from animals up to 20 months old. Young cattle are deemed immune to the risk of being infected with mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

Negotiations are under way within the Japanese government to implement the accord, which may come later this year after approval from the independent Food Safety Commission. But the re-entry into the Japanese market of U.S. beef taken from young animals is far from sufficient to enable Yoshinoya to resume its gyudon services.

Before the ban, the company imported an annual 30,000 tons of American short plate. About 20 pounds of short plate can be produced from a single cow.

Yoshinoya estimates it will be able to procure only 10 percent to 20 percent of the amount after imports resume.

“It’s primarily public fears that have been causing a delay in solving this problem,” said Mr. Abe, who started his career in Yoshinoya as a 21-year-old part-time employee. He also said “sensational media coverage” of BSE issues is partly to blame for the persistent fears.

“It’s indisputable that food safety comes before business convenience,” he said. But he added that the prolonged ban has caused Japanese consumers inconvenience like in the old days when they could rarely enjoy the taste of beef because of its high price. As a result of the ban, the domestic beef price has soared.

He said he has “no idea” when Japan can fully import U.S. beef again, but hopes the prospective, partial resumption will lead to easing public concerns about the safety of U.S. beef.

“Gyudon is a special product for us, and our customers, too,” Mr. Abe said.

“Because we take extra care in serving gyudon, we are not allowed to serve anything that may disappoint our customers,” said Mr. Abe.

Only with American beef, he said, can the company live up to its catchphrase of “good taste, low price, and quick.”

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