YAMAGATA - A flock of ostriches, which stand more than two meters tall, can be seen walking about inside a metal pen in Asahi, a town in Yamagata Prefecture. During the breeding season, some of the about 40 birds spread their wings in a mating dance.
Founded in 2001, the Yamagata Asahi Ostrich Industry Center oversees livestock activities ranging from breeding to processing and sales.
Masahiro Suzuki, 44, is in charge of breeding and marketing at the facility. He insists that the ostriches are friendly, as they have been surrounded by people from the moment they were hatched.
"They're huge, which might scare some people, but they're actually rather adorable," said Suzuki. He patted their heads and beaks as he fed them.
The breeding grounds were established in 1998, when local construction firm Daito Kensetsu utilized its idle land to launch a farming division.
Ostriches rarely make loud noises and do not create a strong odour like most other types of livestock, so breeders can worry less about the impact of their business on the neighborhood. The bird is not only prized for its meat, but everything from the skin to the feathers can be fully utilized.
The centre originally imported nine African Black brooders from South Africa. However, it faced a string of difficulties in securing fertilized eggs and raising baby birds, among other challenges. Its early fertilization efforts failed, and in some cases, birds suddenly died after they were hatched.
Suzuki said his main job is to routinely assess the birds' compatibility to pair them with appropriate mates. Otherwise, it can be hard to ensure that eggs are fertilized. During twice-a-day feeding sessions, Suzuki not only checks their health but studies their temperaments to select cocks for breeding.
Ostrich meat is low in fat and calories, but rich in protein and iron. When the centre began its breeding programme, the meat generated a buzz. Even so, the centre has been struggling to boost sales and help ostrich meat shed its label as a "bizarre food."
"Ostrich meat isn't gamey and has a mild taste, yet it's often overlooked," Suzuki said.
To spread the word, the centre sells ostrich meat sausages called Idaten Furanku whenever the J1 football team Montedio Yamagata plays a home game. The centre has also launched product campaigns by calling ostrich meat "Apple Jidori," because the town's apples are mixed in feed for the birds. As a result, ostrich meat has gained a wider reputation in the prefecture.
"If ostrich is more expensive than beef, consumers won't give it a second glance," said Suzuki, adding the centre is researching ways to lower the cost and maintain a stable supply.
"Given the current trend toward healthier eating, ostrich meat might have a chance of catching on."
Where to buy ostrich meat
Ostrich meat produced in Asahi, along with related processed foods, is available at Asahimachi Kenko Kobo Roifen near the breeding facility. The factory is run by the centre.
Meat loaf and pork-blended sausages are among the products sold there.
"Ostrich meat is lean. It becomes firm when it's made into sausages, which is why we mix it with pork. It doesn't have a strong smell," said factory chief Ryosaku Kumagai, 42. "You have to try it for yourself."
The meat loaf contains ostrich fat, which makes the meat tender, and is seasoned with green pepper.
Kumagai recommends lightly grilling ostrich meat, then topping it with wasabi and soy sauce.
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