The world's most spoiled cows discover that an important supplement in their carefully designed diet is getting harder and harder thanks to thousands of pigs that become ill in China.
Wagyu, known for its soft, fat and marbled meat, is dependent on China for the supply of rice straw, an important part of the high caloric protein-rich diet of the gourmet cattle.
Since the outbreak of African swine fever in China, a large part of the vital feed has been banned from Japan, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries fears that no supplies will eventually be available if the deadly disease spreads.
African swine fever, a highly contagious disease that started to spread in China in August, has raised alarm in neighboring countries with increased disease surveillance and stricter controls on imports. Without a vaccine, the virus is 100 percent deadly for pigs and can destroy a country's agricultural sector.
Although the disease can not affect livestock, it can be transmitted to pigs through contaminated feeding, which means that Japan needs to step up biosecurity measures to prevent the virus from entering the borders.
"This is a big problem for both Chinese and Japanese livestock farming," said Shinichi Igawa, deputy director of the animal health department at the Ministry of Agriculture. "Perhaps we should find alternative sources of supply for rice straw or alternatives to rice straw, given the risk that African swine fever will spread to China."
The Ministry has already suspended rice straw shipments from 25 of the 80 Chinese processing facilities approved for import by Japanese authorities. The 25 prohibited facilities are located within a radius of 50 kilometers from Chinese pig farms with African swine fever. The other facilities are also at risk, as they are located in the northeastern provinces of Liaoning and Jilin, both affected by the deadly disease.
Japan imported more than 200,000 tons of rice straw from China last year, about 20 percent of the total feed needed for its premium cattle, which is sold in Aeon supermarkets for more than ¥ 17,100 per kilogram.
Chinese rice straw can be purchased as cheap as ¥ 10 per kilogram, while the domestic variety can cost more for farmers who have no rice growers in the area because of the high transport costs. It may be cheaper to buy alternatives, such as wheat straw from the US or Australia, Igawa said.
For lovers of wagyu, the already expensive beef can become more expensive, unless a substitute is found, he said.