TOKYO (AP) — The California red wine was served, the oysters on the half-shell consumed. Finally, Bumpei Kawanaka had what he really wanted on his fork: a glistening red slice of American steak.
“It’s very juicy and, of course, tasty,” Mr. Kawanaka said between bites as he became one of the first people in Japan to savor U.S. beef since the country eased a two-year import ban last week. “It’s a special taste.”
American beef made a small but significant appearance on grills in Japan yesterday, signaling what U.S. producers hope will be a triumphant return to what once was their most lucrative overseas market.
The feasts — at a private party in Tokyo and a chain of barbecue restaurants in western Japan — followed limited meat shipments in recent days allowed by Japan’s Dec. 12 decision to partially lift its embargo.
Japan shut its doors to American beef imports in December 2003 after the first U.S. case of mad cow disease, depriving producers of a $1.4 billion market — and consumers of a favorite meal.
The private banquet in Tokyo attended by Mr. Kawanaka was hosted by the state of Nebraska, which held a good chunk of the market before the ban. U.S. officials praised the lifting of the embargo — and then lifted some ribeye to their lips.
“We are so happy … to have you as the first people to taste the beef, which we all know is delicious, safe and affordable,” Dan Berman, minister-counselor for agricultural affairs at the U.S. Embassy, told about 30 guests before slicing into a steak.
At about the same time in western Japan, the wider public got its first mouthfuls at the Zenshoku Korean barbecue chain.
American beef was on the menu in 30 restaurants in that region yesterday, and was to return to 26 outlets in Tokyo and other parts of eastern Japan today.
It was expected to be weeks or even months before Japanese shoppers at supermarkets or diners at popular and cheap beef-and-rice bowl outlets savor their first tastes of U.S. beef.
Yoshinoya, a favorite beef-bowl chain, also is concerned that remaining restrictions on U.S. imports will limit beef’s availability. Japan has agreed to import beef only from U.S. cows age 20 months or younger — a small percentage of the American herd.