A small sampling of Japanese consumers got their first taste of clearly labeled "cloned beef" today in a test run of marketing meat from the country's ambitious cattle-cloning program.
The test, although limited, seemed to show that Japanese have an appetite for cloned beef. The meat from one cow was offered in one restaurant and five shops in Tokyo and nearby areas--and that meat went quickly.
Masato Koyama, for instance, had an allotment of 44 pounds for his Asahiya Meat Shop in a Tokyo suburb. He had only six pounds left by midafternoon, with prices ranging from $5.80 to $20 a pound, as much as 50 percent less than other beef.
Japan has one of the world's biggest cattle-cloning programs, with extensive government support that has put it ahead of other countries. Since 1990, more than 500 head of cattle have been produced by cloning. Officials say the goal is to produce more quality beef--by making clones of particularly high-grade cattle--and bring down the price, which in Japan can go over $100 a pound.
But the program ran into a glitch last spring. While scientists were refining their techniques at more than 30 research stations, they slaughtered some of the cloned calves and sold the meat mixed with other beef. Consumer groups were outraged that the packages were not labeled. They said cloned beef is "unnatural" and people should know what they are buying.
As a result, the government halted all sales of meat from cloned cattle until today's experiment with truth in advertising. Meat shops in the test run displayed bright yellow banners proclaiming, "Cloned Beef, Experimental Sale," and large posters explaining the method of cloning.
Similarly, each place setting at the Pure barbecue restaurant in Tokyo included chopsticks, a hand wipe and a brochure explaining how cows are cloned. "I don't really know much about beef, but if we can have top quality meat for a lower price, I'm for it," said Takashi Kimura, 43, sitting with two colleagues drinking beer and cooking their cloned beef on a tabletop grill.
Japanese scientists use two cloning techniques. One is the embryonic cell method, in which the DNA from several cells of an embryo are transferred into unfertilized eggs. They produced 461 cows by this method through the end of last March.
The other process uses cells from adult animals, similar to the way Dolly the sheep was cloned in Britain. A total of 57 head of cattle were produced by this method through last spring.
In the United States, cloned cattle has been sold for more than a decade without any special labeling, although in relatively small numbers. Perhaps 2,000 cattle clones have been produced in the United States using the embryonic cell method, said Neal First, a cattle cloner at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The one U.S. enterprise that sought to produce Texas cattle clones failed years ago.
"In Japan, the purpose of cloning is different," said Hiroto Takahashi of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. "We have an industrial purpose, while in other Western countries it's more for scientific or medical purposes."
Consumer groups are still suspicious. "Even if it's labeled, we cannot make a judgment as to whether it's safe," said Hiroko Mizuhara of the Consumers Union of Japan. Government officials said they have not decided yet whether to make labeling compulsory.
Koyama, the meat shop owner, said he had some reservations when the agriculture ministry called him and asked if he would participate in the trial. But his shop is in Kamata, a suburb of small factories hard hit by recession, and prices matter a great deal. Koyama said he set the prices low to encourage buyers.
"The price is great," said Yoko Hisano, 37, who picked up a package of sirloin strips for dinner. "I think part of the problem is that the word 'clone' is hard to understand, particularly for older people."
Special correspondent Shigehiko Togo in Tokyo and staff writer Rick Weiss in Washington contributed to this report.