Japan’s wagyu beef looks to conquer the world

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Each cow spends the 30 months of its life cossetted and pampered, reared stress-free and under constant medical watch. (AFP)
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The value of exports has risen more than 200 percent in the last five years — Hong Kong is currently the largest market. (AFP)
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The Hida brand might not yet have the recognition of famed Kobe beef, but overall the international profile of wagyu is on the rise. (AFP)
Updated 01 February 2019
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Japan’s wagyu beef looks to conquer the world

  • Wagyu beef is famous for its melt-in-the-mouth tenderness and marbled fat
  • The value of exports has risen more than 200 percent in the last five years

TAKAYAMA, Japan: In a lush field in the heart of the Japanese mountains, a herd of glossy black cows roam happily — prime examples of the area’s Hida brand of wagyu beef.
With consumption of the famed meat known for its melt-in-the-mouth tenderness and marbled fat on the decline in Japan, producers are looking overseas to boost sales instead.
The Hida brand might not yet have the recognition of famed Kobe beef, but overall the international profile of wagyu is on the rise.
The value of exports has risen more than 200 percent in the last five years — Hong Kong is currently the largest market.
About an hour from Takayama, a town that attracts tourists with its traditional wooden houses, dozens of cows owned by different farmers have free range across a 250-hectare plot leased by the local municipality.
They spend the warm summer months in the tranquil greenery and return to the warmth of the stables when the winter comes around.
There they give birth to calves that are the product of carefully organized breeding to protect the “purity” of each cow’s bloodline.
“It’s important to preserve the bloodline, because good genes guarantee good quality meat,” explains Koichi Maruyama, a local official in charge of the cattle rearing department.
“The quality also comes from the feed,” he adds.
For cows bred for wagyu beef, that means 10 kilogrammes (22 pounds) of rice straw a day, to ensure the intramuscular marbling that gives the meat its characteristic look, and taste.
Each cow spends the 30 months of its life cossetted and pampered, reared stress-free and under constant medical watch.
They are tagged electronically, in a system described as unique in the world, and every cow’s family tree can be traced back at least to its grandparents, if not further.
Some farmers pamper their cows by covering them in coats during the winter, feeding them beer, and even playing them classical music.
Producers in Takayama don’t go that far but that doesn’t mean there is much room for error.
“We never rest, we’re looking after them 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” says Shuichi Mizobata, on the sidelines of a locally organized wagyu competition.
Cows parade in front of judges and are weighed and measured to determine which will compete at a national face-off that takes place every five years.
A Takayama cow won in 2002, in a victory that still sparks pride for the young Hida brand.
Wagyu cultivation dates back only a few decades, with most Japanese black cattle — the breed that dominates wagyu — derived from a single bull born 80 years ago.
“After the liberalization of beef import rules, we decided to put the focus on very high quality wagyu beef to differentiate our products from imported ones,” said Sota Kamihiro, an official with the agriculture ministry.
Producers have also struggled with the decline in beef consumption that started around 2000, over fears linked to BSE, and a shrinking number of farmers, with existing producers aging and leaving behind no heirs.
In 2013, the agriculture ministry set new export targets with the goal of reaching 25 billion yen ($228 million) in beef sales overseas by 2019.
The goal looks achievable, with sales already at 24.7 billion yen in 2018, a massive increase from five billion when the strategy was put in place.
And the explosion in exports comes despite the eye-watering expense of the product — the most prized portions of wagyu go for around 13,700 yen a kilo.
In Takayama, exports only accounted for five percent, or 43 tons, of the beef sold by producers in 2017, but that was already double the previous year.
The town has an abattoir that observes stringent rules and is one of just four in Japan certified to handle meat for export to the European Union.
Increasingly, producers are also securing halal certification for slaughterhouses — which number around 200 in total across Japan — so they can export to Muslim countries.
After slaughter, the beef is put up for auction, with the carcasses displayed behind glass alongside cards ranking them according to a precise system based on the meat’s marbling, color, texture, and the quality of the fat, according to director Mitsushi Kobayashi.
“The Japanese seek above all to reduce the blood and muscle in the animal, and to develop the fat, the opposite of us,” said French chef Lionel Beccat, who has a Michelin-starred restaurant in Tokyo.
“The meat is sublime, it melts in the mouth, there are different notes depending on the cows, some are floral, others nutty, others spicy,” he added.
“So the meat can be appreciated as it is, you just grill it and that’s it. It’s very Japanese, like sashimi.”


To fight off unemployment, Iraqi youth plant start-up seeds

Updated 45 min 10 sec ago
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To fight off unemployment, Iraqi youth plant start-up seeds

  • Iraqi entrepreneurs are taking on staggering unemployment by establishing their own start-ups
  • Under current legislation, private sector employees are not offered the same labor protections or social benefits as those in the public sector

BAGHDAD: Stuck between an endless waitlist for a government job and a frail private sector, Iraqi entrepreneurs are taking on staggering unemployment by establishing their own start-ups.
The first murmurs of this creative spirit were felt in 2013, but the Daesh group’s sweep across a third of the country the following year put many projects on hold.
Now, with Daesh defeated, co-working spaces and incubators are flourishing in a country whose unemployment rate hovers around 10 percent but whose public sector is too bloated to hire.
Many self-starters begin their journey at an aptly named glass building in central Baghdad: The Station.
There, they sip on coffee, peruse floor-to-ceiling bookshelves for ideas and grab a seat at clusters of desks where other stylish Iraqis click away at their laptops.
“We’re trying to create a new generation with a different state of mind,” said executive director Haidar Hamzoz.
“We want to tell youth that they can start their own project, achieve their dreams and not just be happy in a government job they didn’t even want,” he said.
Youth make up around 60 percent of Iraq’s nearly 40 million people.
After graduating from university, many spend years waiting to be appointed to a job in the government, Iraq’s biggest employer.
Four out of five jobs created in Iraq in recent years are in the public sector, according to the World Bank.
And in its 2019 budget, the government proposed $52 billion in salaries, pensions, and social security for its workers — a 15 percent jump from 2018 and more than half the total budget.
But with graduates entering the workforce faster than jobs are created, many still wait indefinitely for work.
Among youth, 17 percent of men and a whopping 27 percent of women are unemployed, the World Bank says.
When Daesh declared Mosul its seat of power in Iraq back in 2014, resident Saleh Mahmud was forced to shutter the city’s incubator for would-be entrepreneurs.
With Mosul now cautiously rebuilding after the militants were ousted in 2017, Mahmud is back in business.
“Around 600-700 youth have already passed by Mosul Space” to attend a seminar or seek out resources as they start their own ventures, said the 23-year-old.
He was inspired after watching fellow Mosul University graduates hopelessly “try to hunt down a connection to get a job in the public sphere.”
“A university education isn’t something that gets you a fulfilling job,” he said.
Another start-up, Dakkakena, is capitalizing on Mosul’s rebuilding spirit, too.
The online shopping service delivers a lorry-full of home goods every day to at least a dozen families refurnishing after the war.
“On the web, we can sell things for cheaper than stores because we have fewer costs, like no showrooms,” said founder Yussef Al-Noaime, 27.
Noaime fled Daesh to the Netherlands, where he was introduced to e-commerce. When he returned home, the computer engineer partnered with another local to found their venture.
A similar service, Miswag, was set-up in the capital Baghdad in 2014 and last year reported hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits.
On an autumn day, some 70 young Iraqi innovators converged for a three-day workshop in Baghdad on founding start-ups.
They flitted among round tables planning projects, their Arabic conversations sprinkled with English terms.
“What we’re doing is showing youth what entrepreneurship is — not necessarily so they succeed, but so they at least try,” said organizer Ibrahim Al-Zarari.
He said attendees should understand two things: first, that the public sector is saturated. And second, that oil isn’t the only resource on which Iraq — OPEC’s second-largest producer — should capitalize.
More than 65 percent of Iraq’s GDP and nearly 90 percent of state revenues hail from the oil sector. Many youths turn to it for work, but it only employs one percent of the workforce.
Widespread corruption and bureaucracy also weaken Iraq’s appeal for private investors. The World Bank ranks it 168th out of 190 for states with a good business environment.
Under current legislation, private sector employees are not offered the same labor protections or social benefits as those in the public sector.
And Iraq’s stuttering banking industry appears too cautious to dive in, said Tamara Raad, 26, who researches start-ups.
“The banks have a role to play. They must make loans without interest and help young entrepreneurs,” she said.
Banks or no banks, Mahmud in Mosul is already planning how he’ll grow his business in 2019.
“We will open a new, larger space for new gatherings,” he said excitedly, to bring together returning designers, developers and other inventors.