Raw beef liver to disappear from Japanese menus in July

Japan - The health ministry has decided to ban restaurants from serving raw beef liver from July 1 due to food poisoning concerns, and violators of the new rule could be fined or even imprisoned.

The ministry made the decision after its food sanitation council approved the policy at a meeting Tuesday.

Enterohemorrhagic E. coli O-157 and Campylobacter bacteria, both of which can cause severe stomachache, have been detected in raw beef liver.

A research report said it is difficult to remove or kill the bacteria through screening tests or disinfection, and that liver can only be guaranteed safe to consume if it has been cooked.

Operators of barbecue restaurants and other establishments that ignore the ban on raw beef liver could be sentenced to up to two years in prison or fined up to 2 million yen(S$32,192).

At Tuesday's meeting, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry presented comments submitted by the public over the month through May 18.

Although most of the 1,532 opinions were against outlawing raw liver, ministry officials insisted a ban--backed up by penalties--was necessary because there is no 100 per cent safe way of eating raw beef liver.

Experts of the council accepted the ministry's opinion on the condition that the ban will be reconsidered when methods to safely eat raw liver are found.

Farmers stunned by decision

Many livestock farmers were staggered by the ministry's decision, which could cut their income considerably, although consumer groups praised the ban.

Kazuo Matsumoto, a 49-year-old farmer who keeps about 340 Japanese black cattle in Oyama, Tochigi Prefecture, sighed when he heard about the ministry's decision.

"To be honest, this hurts," he said.

Matsumoto ships about 190 cattle each year. If the price of each cow drops by 5,000 yen because its liver can no longer be sold to restaurants, he could be facing a nearly 1 million yen loss in annual income.

"I hear many people go to barbecue restaurants just to eat raw liver. I'm worried that the new rule might turn people off eating beef," he said.

Beef market players are also wondering how to respond to the liver ban. With liver no longer selling well, some wholesalers have already requested the price of innards be reduced.

Kazutaka Omori, an employee of Tokyo Shibaura Zoki innards trader, sells cattle organs to wholesalers at Tokyo Meat Market in Minato Ward, Tokyo. He acknowledged both sides of this issue are in a tight spot.

"I understand the hardships wholesalers are facing. But I can't ignore the plight of the farmers," Omori, 58, said.

Hisa Anan, the chief of the secretariat of the National Liaison Committee of Consumers' Organization, welcomed the ministry's move.

"The ministry couldn't eradicate food poisoning just by asking restaurants to voluntarily stop serving raw beef liver. I guess the ministry had no alternative," she said.

However, others experts have criticized the ministry's decision.

"The ministry should encourage consumers to make their own decisions by providing them with adequate information, rather than imposing a blanket ban," said Tsutomu Sekizaki, director of the University of Tokyo's Research Center for Food Safety.