In a recent series of menu mislabeling scandals at hotels across the nation, officials admitted that artificially processed meat injected with beef fat had been advertised on their menus and served as genuine “beef steak.”
The Asahi Shimbun recently visited a meat-processing factory in eastern Japan, which agreed to an interview on condition of anonymity, to see how this processing method worked and what effect it had on the finished product.
At the factory, lean beef with virtually no fat came out looking like marbled beef, after passing through a machine looking like a “kenzan” (sword mountain).
On a conveyor belt, chunks of lean meat are carried along. The factory uses beef from cattle mainly from Australia and New Zealand that have given birth to calves.
The beef passes under the machine, called a meat injector, which repeatedly stabs the beef with more than 200 needles.
In each pricking movement, beef fat, processed from the fat of domestic cattle, is injected. Additives such as amino acids are also contained in the tallow to enhance the taste.
The processed meat is then sent to wholesalers for commercial use at restaurants and boxed lunch retailers.
A reporter was allowed to sample two kinds of grilled meat--one that had been injection treated and another that was unprocessed.
The latter was difficult to chew and had a dry texture.
In contrast, tallow-injected steak was so tender and juicy that the flavor practically flowed into the mouth.
Beef from pasture-fed foreign cattle tends to be rather tough. With injection processing, however, restaurants and retailers can provide more tender beef at a low cost.
“It is technology to make beef tasty,” a senior official in charge of product development said. “My children eat it too.”
The president is worried that recent scandals will give a bad name to the meat processing business.
“We are not making anything shameful,” he said. “We are proud of our products.”
The processing of beef to improve its quality through injecting fat started being developed in the 1980s, as a means to make Holstein beef tasty after a dairy cow stops producing milk, according to the agricultural ministry and meat processing companies.
The development of the method was accelerated following liberalization of beef imports in 1991, to make it suitable for Japanese tastes.
As U.S. beef became softer due to improvement of the grain feed, the method has primarily been applied to beef imported from Australia.
No official statistics for production of fat-injected meat is available, but it is certain that the outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, contributed to its increase.
When U.S. beef imports were banned in 2003, tallow-injected meat came to be widely used at family restaurants, Japanese-style pubs, grilled beef restaurants and boxed lunch shops.
Another type of processed meat emerged amid the food mislabeling scandal is “molded meat,” which has been manufactured since the 1960s.
A domestic manufacturer said his company makes molded beef by mixing scrap meat and internal organs and adhering them with a food additive used for making fish paste.
“Molded meat is not bad,” he said angrily. “We are effectively using meat that could have been disposed of. The (accused) restaurants should have served steak by clearly noting molded meat was used at a price matching it.”
A meat wholesaler in Osaka Prefecture says beef prices are rising due to escalating grain prices.
“Restaurants wanting to avoid raising (steak) prices tend to use processed meat,” the wholesaler said.
The cost for 1 kilogram of sirloin injected with beef tallow is 1,400 to 2,000 yen ($13.70--$19.50), while molded meat costs 700 to 800 yen per kilogram. The wholesaler sells the meat to restaurants at a price 10 percent higher.
High-grade Japanese beef with an A3 ranking can cost at least 5,000 yen per kilogram, the wholesaler said.
The Mr. Barg steak chain, based in Okayama Prefecture, specifies processed meat on the menu.
At a Mr. Barg outlet, “AUS soft sirloin steak” is listed on the menu. Under the picture of the Australian-originated steak, is the disclaimer “Wagyu (Japanese beef) fat is injected.”
Fat-injected 180-gram steak using Australian beef with rice, which is priced at 1,299 yen, is more popular than unprocessed beef steak from the United States, according to the restaurant.
In 2011, when it served fat-injected beef labeling it as “marbled beef,” the company was ordered to change the labeling and take preventive measures by the Consumer Affairs Agency.
Even though Mr. Barg outlets corrected the labeling, “it did not cause a drop in sales,” said Goichi Endo, president of Barg Japan Co., operator of the Mr. Barg chain.
In 2009, customers suffered food poisoning apparently caused by dice-cut beef steak using molded beef after dining at Pepper Lunch steak chain outlets.
The company had stopped serving molded and beef fat-injected steak, but restarted about a year ago because many customers wanted to have it again.
The menu notes, “The meat has been processed to adjust the taste,” instead of saying the restaurant uses fat-injected meat.
(Ryuichi Hisanaga contributed to this article.)
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