One year after highly publicized deadly food poisonings at a "yakiniku" barbecue chain restaurant, "yukhoe," a Korean dish of spiced ground beef served raw, has practically disappeared off menus.
At Seiyuzan, a classy yakiniku restaurant on the 41st floor of a skyscraper in Tokyo's Shiodome district, offering a view of Tokyo Sky Tree in the distance, yukhoe only popped back on the menu in December.
On a recent night, non-Japanese in suits stood out among the clientele, as the waitstaff delivered yukhoe to the tables, heaped into jet black bowls.
One serving costs 2,400 yen ($30), 500 yen higher than it used to be. But the management claims that when other dishes of uncooked meat such as gyusashi (sliced raw beef) and gyusushi (beef sushi) are included, about half its customers still order raw meat.
When Seiyuzan decided to put yukhoe back on the menu, the restaurant created its own airtight, sterilized kitchen knife case to meet the stricter standards. The cost of meat for yukhoe has increased by 50 percent.
"In addition to yukhoe making the average customer bill higher, our ability to attract customers gives us the upper hand over other restaurants," said General Manager Shuei Niioka. "People think, 'this restaurant can serve raw meat,' so that safety also appeals to them.' "
In Tokyo's Shin-Okubo district, known as "Koreatown," which is crowded with yakiniku restaurants large and small, on recent visits to about 10 of them, there was no yukhoe on the menu.
One restaurant worker was soliciting passers-by, shouting, "We have yukhoe!" But that turned out to be "yukejang" soup, a spicy Korean beef and vegetable soup. (Yukhoe is called yukke in Japanese, hence the misunderstanding.)
"Even if one or two people a day eat (yukhoe), we can't keep it fresh," said Ha Dae-hyun, the owner of the Koraitei restaurant. If he serves yukhoe, he has to charge around 1,500 yen. Otherwise it's not worth selling. "Nobody else serves it, so I don't feel like we have to. People won't be able to eat yukhoe around here for a long time."
Yukhoe food poisoning incidents occurred in April of last year in Toyama and in four prefectures. A total of 181 people displayed symptoms after eating it at the low-cost Yakiniku Sakaya Ebisu chain restaurant. One victim in Fukui Prefecture and four people in Toyama Prefecture died.
In Toyama, Yakiniku House Daishogun, which runs three establishments, began offering yukhoe again in December.
The chain still serves yukhoe at the same price of 840 yen a dish, but the cost of meat for raw consumption is up by 50 percent. A manager said that "there's no money to be made" from serving yukhoe.
The Tsuruhashi district of Osaka is stacked deep with yakiniku restaurants. Oh Yong-il, the owner of Hakuundai, a restaurant that cannot afford to offer yukhoe, revealed the sense of crisis he feels when he said that "without raw meat, Tsuruhashi faces a life-or-death situation."
The health ministry has stated its intent to ban the sale of beef liver served as sashimi. He complained, "If I can't serve liver sashimi, then I have to consider selling yukhoe again. I'd rather they just ban all raw meat."
New government standards for the consumption of raw beef were put into place in October under the provisions of the Food Sanitation Law. The standards tighten rules for processing and preparation and require that all meat within at least one centimeter from the surface be heat sterilized for two or more minutes at 60 degrees.
Raw meat can be offered if the heated portion is removed. The regulations further require that separate, dedicated equipment and tools be used for processing and preparation. Violators could face "a maximum two-year prison term or a fine of up to 2 million yen" and be forced to suspend operations.
An investigation by The Asahi Shimbun found that after the new government standards were introduced last October, only 104 establishments in 16 prefectures were offering beef for raw consumption that conformed as of the end of March.
The Asahi Shimbun called officials in Tokyo as well as the other 112 local governments (the other 46 prefectures, government ordinance-designated cities, etc.) with public health centers. By prefecture, the investigation found that Osaka had the most such restaurants at 36, followed by Hyogo, 22, and Shiga, 14. Compliant restaurants--77 of them--are concentrated in the Kinki region, accounting for 74 percent of all in Japan. Thirty-one prefectures had none whatsoever.
The health ministry compiled the results of on-site inspections conducted in May of last year, finding that of the 19,856 establishments handling beef for raw consumption, roughly half were in violation of standards at the time. Even when the ministry compiled the inspection results at the end of last year, it found that 94 percent of the country's 445 establishments offering such meat were in violation of the new standards.
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