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Tuesday, March 19, 2002

Cows fed 'ume' called plum of beef

Distiller's surplus fruit used to nurture 'organic' cattle in Osaka

Staff writer

OSAKA -- Japanese are slashing their use of beef for dinner, but the Osaka Prefectural Government has a plum idea for making cows healthier and more appetizing.

News photo
Cattle in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, eat plums used to make umeshu plum liqueur. Their meat, said to be healthier and "organic," will be marketed as Osaka Ume Beef.

The prefecture's latest brainchild -- plum-fed beef -- is aimed at easing growing consumer concerns for food safety and credibility after the outbreak of Japan's first case of mad cow disease in September and numerous beef-mislabeling scams.

The meat of such cattle will be marketed as a new, healthier brand called Osaka Ume Beef to help dispel concerns that beef products are unsafe.

"By eating plums, beef cattle become healthier and the quality of the meat improves," said Yasuhiro Fujitani, researcher at the Department of Food and Bioresources Science at the Osaka Prefectural Agricultural and Forestry Research Center. "Ume beef is the meat equivalent to organic vegetables, as they are free of antibiotics."

"Ume" (plum) is the source of "umeshu" plum spirits. It was this connection that led to Osaka's breakthrough.

In 1999, Fujitani began feeding cattle with conventional grains and excess plums from Choya Umeshu Co., the largest umeshu distillery, which is based near the center in Habikino, Osaka Prefecture.

According to Choya official Tomohiro Akagi, the company used to either recycle or discard up to 1,000 tons of plums each year after soaking them in "shochu" spirits to produce umeshu.

It was good news for Choya. By participating in the new beef project, the firm found it could recycle the used plums without spending "considerable amounts of money," Akagi said.

For the cattle, the plums once soaked in shochu turned out to be the best recycled food Fujitani had ever tried.

"We have tried to feed them grapes used for wine or apple dregs, but they did not work out due to high cost and a lack of availability all year," Fujitani said. "The used plums, however, are perfect in terms of cost, and they are available all year around and don't rot easily."

The plums as feed performed far better than he had expected.

"After we began feeding the cows plums, they stopped having diarrhea and no longer suffered from loss of appetite, both of which are common for cattle," he said. "The citric acid in plums helps digestion, and the seed pods are a good stimulant to their stomachs."

As a result, the cattle now eat about 10 percent more feed than before and the pace of their growth has quickened. Fujitani thinks this is due to the residual alcohol in the fruit, because alcohol is known to be easily absorbed by the body, compared with other sources of energy.

When the center's first plum-fed beef was put on the market in December 2000, it drew a ranking of four on a scale of five, with five as the highest quality. The rank was decided based on the meat's distribution of fat, color and texture.

"When a beef cow gets big, it is often because of thick subcutaneous fat and thus is not high-quality beef. But Ume Beef turned out to be far better quality than I expected," Fujitani said.

After successful tests at the research center, three farmers in the prefecture adopted the ume feeding process, and 500 cattle are being raised for ume beef.

Last December, the three farmers joined up with Choya Umeshu to form the Osaka Ume Beef Association and formally registered the brand Osaka Ume Beef.

One of the farmers, Shoji Harano, is breeding some 140 ume beef cattle in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture. He said the association is working very carefully on selecting distributors.

"Our sales points are safety and security of the beef, so we have to pick credible distributors and maintain the credibility of the brand together with them," he said, adding that the new brand is expected to hit the market in April.

The association accepts new farmers provided they follow the rules on ume feeding, which requires they be given only natural food and plums for more than 12 months and no antibiotics. But due to the availability of the plums, the maximum number of ume beef cattle cannot exceed 1,000, Fujitani said.

"Osaka Ume Beef will not become an expensive brand of beef because it is based on the feeding method and not on a pedigree, like Kobe beef or Matsuzaka beef," he said. "But it could be just as popular because that is what consumers want these days."

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