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Holy Cow – Making Sense of Japanese Wagyu Cow Export Rules

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The following is a guest post by Sayuri Umeda, a foreign law specialist who covers Japan and other countries in East and Southeast Asia. Sayuri has previously written posts for In Custodia Legis on various topics, including Japanese Criminal Legal System as Seen Through the Carlos Ghosn CaseDisciplining Judges for “Bad Tweets”Engagement under Japanese Law and Imperial House RulesIs the Sound of Children Actually Noise?How to Boost your Medal Count in the Olympics, South Korean-Style, and many more.

In recent years, the expensive wagyu beef brand has become popular in the United States. I frequently see the word “wagyu” in restaurants and at meat counters in grocery stores. In the past, “Kobe” beef, a variety of wagyu beef, was more popular in the U.S., in part because a certain basketball star was named after that high-end beef. Wagyu means Japanese (wa) cow (gyu). The American Wagyu Association explains wagyu on its website in more detail.

The website explains that Americans started to enjoy U.S.-produced wagyu after 2003. According to the Association,

[m]ost US [wagyu beef] production was exported to Japan until 2003 when BSE [mad cow disease] was discovered and Japan and other countries stopped the import of beef for the U.S. However, chefs and others in the U.S. were aware of the superior eating quality of Wagyu and the domestic market then and now utilize much of the U.S. production.

I recently read a Japanese news article reporting that a Japanese person who tried to smuggle wagyu sperm and fertilized eggs in special tubes to China was caught by the Chinese customs authorities who found the tubes. Many Japanese people reacted to the news and called for stricter measures to prevent such acts. Initially, the news articles stated that the Act on Domestic Animal Infectious Diseases Control (Act No. 166 of 1951, amended by Act No. 16 of 2011) prohibited the export of wagyu sperm. I checked the law, but could not find a provision that directly prohibits the export of wagyu sperm. However, in the course of my research, I found interesting background information regarding wagyu production outside of Japan.

A beautiful home of Japanese Wagyu cows. Photo by Flickr user Ippei & Janine Naoi. Aug. 5, 2007. Used under Creative Commons license,

Regarding the regulation of wagyu sperm export, one news website wrote that an official from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) suggested that unidentified international free trade agreements that Japan ratified prohibit banning the export of wagyu cow, sperm, or fertilized eggs. These agreements would be a reason that I could not find a provision that directly bans the export of wagyu sperm and the like in the Act on Domestic Animal Infectious Diseases Control.

Cows and sperm and fertilized eggs of cows are, however, subject to export quarantine under the Act. (Act No. 166 of 1951, art. 37, para. 1 item 1 & art. 45, para. 1, item 2; and Enforcement Ordinance of Act on Domestic Animal Infectious Diseases Control, MAFF ordinance No. 35 of 1951, art. 45, item 1 & art. 53.) The MAFF website states that they are subject to export quarantine and cannot be legally exported from Japan, but provides no further explanation. Some local governments’ websites offer the reason that no country has made an agreement with Japan regarding the import conditions of wagyu sperm etc. from Japan. Therefore, such items must be checked at a quarantine station and stopped from being exported. However, the MAFF notification (Livestock Products Export Examination Manual, MAFF Do-ken No. 1290 (Mar. 29, 2017)) does not state that someone cannot export livestock products to a country where such an agreement was not made. Instead it states that an examiner must check the conditions of import of the country where the item would be exported to if the importing country and Japan have not concluded an agreement regarding the conditions on hygiene of imported/exported livestock products. I could not locate further information.

In addition, wagyu producers have made efforts to keep wagyu beef inside Japan to protect the brand. It appears that Japan’s Wagyu Registry Association, which was established in 1948, never allowed the export of wagyu cow, sperm, and eggs. I found a 1990 Los Angeles Times article that reported that “[t]he four Japanese bulls … were brought to the United States in a shroud of secrecy 14 years ago.” Between 1991 and 1999, 240 wagyu cows and 15,000 tubes of wagyu sperm were exported from Japan by a stock farmer and three other companies, despite the request of the Association not to do so. The individual was ousted from the Association. It is not clear, but it appears that the Japanese government allowed the export. Some wagyu offspring were exported from the U.S. to other countries, such as Australia. Wagyu has been successfully raised in foreign countries. Japanese livestock farmers are not happy, because their beef in foreign markets must compete with foreign wagyu.

Recognizing that foreign wagyu threatened the Japanese wagyu market, the MAFF established the Discussion Group on Protection of Germplasm Livestock in 2006. The Group released a report that proposed strict management of wagyu sperm, etc. Currently, cow sperm trades must be recorded on sperm certificates that are required for trading of the cow in the future. Some Japanese prefectures prohibit the transfer of sperm outside their jurisdictions. However, cases of missing or stolen sperm have been reported. In the smuggling case mentioned above, the MAFF decided to file charges against the person for a violation of the Act with the Osaka Police, and demanded that customs, airlines, and ship operators pay more attention to smuggling of wagyu sperm and eggs.

Whether or not Japan restricts the exports of wagyu sperm and the like, the U.S. and Australia have already produced wagyu hybrid cows on a large scale. For consumers, it means more choices. While Japanese consumers welcome Australian beef, including hybrid wagyu beef, as more affordable, some Australians prefer high-end Japanese wagyu at high prices.

Comments (2)

  1. They call it wagyu but I spent 6 years in japan and went all over the island and have never seen a cow over there only ox

  2. It’s a real shame that they try to permanently oligopolize the production and sale of purebred wagyu beef in this manner. I understand why they do it – money talks – but with larger access and more countries, many more people would have the opportunity to enjoy such a fantastic breed of beef and perhaps novel bovine crossbreeds could provide even better flavor (bison-wagyu anyone?) than have been previously available.

    Perhaps one day an accord could be struck in the form of an international trade agreement that allows Japan to strictly govern the usage of the terms “Wagyu” and “Kobe” in order to allow them to maintain their brand value and exclusivity, while otherwise allowing for the free export of wagyu and kobe germplasms (eggs and sperm; or perhaps even embryos or whole cows?) so that it can be proliferated to a greater degree and made available to the masses of the world yearning to try it.

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