The Yomiuri ShimbunJapan’s wagyu beef is a world-class, precious asset. It is essential that steps are taken to prevent this asset from slipping out to other nations.
Following an incident in which fertilized eggs and sperm of wagyu cattle were nearly taken out of Japan to China, the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry has compiled a plan that would thoroughly control the distribution of such genetic resources. The plan entails a revision to the Improvement and Increased Production of Livestock Law, and would obligate facilities that buy and sell such genetic material to create and store records of these transactions.
Genetic material for wagyu cattle can be handled by facilities such as livestock artificial insemination centers that have been approved by a prefectural government. These facilities sell this material after receiving orders from livestock farmers, and mediate the buying and selling of these resources, but many do not keep transaction records.
If a register detailing the parties involved in such sales was created, the path of any genetic resources that ended up overseas would become easier to trace. This could be expected to have some effect in preventing such outflows.
Many prefectural governments have not conducted on-site inspections of these facilities. It is undeniable that some aspects of managing genetic material have been left entirely in the hands of these facilities. Regular inspections must be conducted and their management procedures confirmed.
The ministry aims to have participants that buy and sell such materials exchange contracts and include a provision that they will not sell to third parties. This is because transactions made without a contract could lead to the black-market sale of genetic resources.
There are cases overseas in which sales of pigs’ genetic material are bound by a contract. The contracts prohibit using these resources for cross-breeding without permission and stipulate the obligation to pay a penalty if the contract is breached. This could be a useful model for a method to prevent the improper use of wagyu genetic resources.
Two people who served as carriers were found guilty over the attempt to smuggle wagyu eggs and sperm to China, and a person who ran the facility that the material came from also was indicted. This case was treated as a violation of laws including the Domestic Animal Infectious Diseases Control Law, which was written to prevent the spread of such diseases. This approach was a last resort, because Japan does not have a law specifically controlling the flow of genetic resources abroad.
There have been calls for creating a legal framework that would directly ban the export of such material. However, such a law could infringe on World Trade Organization rules that, in principle, support free trade. As a first step, an appropriate domestic distribution system for genetic resources must be quickly put in place.
Wagyu beef stands out for its tender meat and has earned a fine reputation abroad. If wagyu cattle’s genetic material ended up overseas and was used for breeding in other countries, it could deliver a stinging blow to Japanese livestock farmers.
Many livestock farmers admit they have been approached by operators from abroad wanting them to sell wagyu cattle’s fertilized eggs and sperm.
It is vital that the livestock industry shares a sense of urgency over the fact that the wagyu brand is being targeted.