Japan's first outbreak of mad cow disease is rippling through the world's second biggest economy, depressing sales of beef, putting farmers on alert and shaking the food industry.
McDonald's Japan has slashed its profit forecast, saying the single outbreak in September of the brain-wasting disease, known technically as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) has spooked its customers.The impact is even being felt in the United States, which sells more beef to Japan than to any other country. U.S. beef exports to Japan are tumbling in the wake of the disease.
Some industry experts said that signs of improvement in beef demand could begin to emerge early next year.
But they cautioned that it could take more than two years before beef sales fully recover as cautious Japanese consumers shun the meat, ignoring government assurances it's safe to eat.
Since a farm near Tokyo reported that one of its Holsteins had tested positive for mad cow disease in September in the first outbreak of the disease in Asia, Japan's beef sales have tumbled 40-70 percent, according to a recent government survey.
Among restaurant chains serving yakiniku grilled beef, about 44 percent of chain operators said in a recent survey that their sales had fallen by more than 50 percent.
The last time Japan faced such a huge slide in meat sales was in 1996 following a widespread food poisoning epidemic caused by the O-157 strain of the E.coli bacteria.
But industry officials say the damage inflicted by this single isolated case of mad cow disease is even worse."In the past 10 years since the market opened in 1991, we had a similar drop in beef sales in 1996. But this is worse than that," said Takemichi Yamashoji, senior marketing director of Tokyo-based U.S. Meat Export Federation.
The O-157 strain, which causes severe diarrhoea, vomiting and fevers that often lead to liver complications, killed 11 people and made more than 9,500 people ill in 1996 in Japan.No one has fallen sick or died as a result of Japan's mad cow outbreak, but scientists suspect that eating beef infected with BSE can cause a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), a fatal brain affliction.
In Europe, the human variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease has killed about 100 people.