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With ban lifted, Japan will have to battle for wagyu throne in Taiwan

Formidable Aussies are already there, not to mention 'Matsusaka' pork

A shopper in a Taipei grocery store browses along the butcher's aisle.

TAIPEI -- Now that Taiwan has lifted a 16-year ban on Japanese imports of beef, prized wagyu has a chance to capture part of a market that has always been friendly to Japanese exports.

But in the absence of Japanese wagyu, Taiwanese diners have moved on, and eateries have as well, serving chilled wagyu beef raised in Australia on grains. Despite the word "wagyu" -- "wa" for "Japan" and "gyu" for "beef" in Japanese -- Australian farmers have succeeded in convincing the world their cattle is wagyu quality.

Taiwan's Executive Yuan on Monday announced the lifting of the ban. It will likely take a while longer for distribution channels to be approved, but one Japanese government official said he hopes things start moving this year.

There is more than Aussie beef to compete against. Recently, the Nikkei Asian Review came across a small eatery in downtown Taipei advertising a "Matsusaka meat bento." What? Japanese-beef imports had been banned since 2001, when Japan was suffering from an outbreak of mad cow disease.

Was the restaurant openly flouting the law?

This Taipei eatery is touting "Matsusaka" lunches even though Matsusaka, like all Japanese beef, had been banned in Taiwan since 2001.

The price of the Matsusaka lunch was 100 New Taiwan dollars ($3.33), half the price of a stewed chicken leg bento. As it turned out, the Matsusaka bento did not even have beef in it. In Taiwan, "Matsusaka" means fatty pork from the pig's neck, not one of the most coveted cuts.

In central Japan's Mie Prefecture, Matsusaka cattle are raised listening to Mozart, drinking beer and getting regular rubdowns. The beef is prized for its marbled fat content. But in Taiwan, fatty pork has somehow earned the same name.

Another form of competition Japanese exporters will face is price. Japan exported only a tiny amount of beef and beef products to Taiwan before the ban was imposed. According to Taiwan's Ministry of Finance, Taiwan in 2000 received only 4 tons of Japanese beef, less than 0.01% of all beef imported that year, due to high prices.

According to last year's data, Taiwan imported about 110,000 tons of beef, about 43,000 tons from the U.S. and 32,000 tons from Australia. At supermarkets, American steaks sell for NT$80 per 100 grams. In Japan, high-end Matsusaka steaks can cost around 10,000 yen ($91) per 100 grams.

On July 18, immediately after the government announced that it was moving toward lifting the ban, the Apple Daily newspaper reported that retail prices of Japanese wagyu were expected to be 50-100% higher than those of its Australian counterpart.

Still, Japanese beef could catch on as an expensive gift. A 54-year-old former company executive in Taipei said she would buy Japanese beef as a gift if the import ban were lifted. She said she would spare no expense to save face.

Japanese beef could also draw attention in Taiwan next winter, during the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday, when families traditionally enjoy feasts together.

In Taiwan, though, Japanese wagyu has an uphill climb in front of it.

Nikkei staff writer Debby Wu contributed to this report.

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