Fake wagyu rampant in Asia amid rising popularity of Japanese beef

Japan's Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry plans to encourage relevant organisations to register waguy beef products as intellectual property.
Japan's Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry plans to encourage relevant organisations to register waguy beef products as intellectual property.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

TOKYO (YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) – Japan plans to strengthen efforts to fight the spread of fake wagyu products in Asia amid the Japanese beef’s rising popularity as a luxury delicacy in countries like Singapore.

“We hope to increase Matsusaka-ushi beef exports, but there are so many fake products,” said an official at the Matsusaka municipal government in Mie Prefecture. Matsusaka-ushi is one of the top three types of wagyu beef, the other two being the Kobe and Ohmi variants.

When the city participated in a food fair in Singapore as an exhibitor last summer, municipal government officials in charge found a banner reading “Matsusaka-ushi” in front of a local meat shop.

The official said it would have required a DNA analysis to determine the authenticity of the beef product. 

“We don’t have the time or money to do that,” he said.

An official at the Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association agreed that such efforts were impractical.

“It is impossible for a producers’ organisation alone to tackle such a problem,” the official said.

To address the situation, the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry plans to encourage relevant organisations to register products as intellectual property under the Geographical Indication (GI) protection system, while strengthening surveillance for fake products in cooperation with the countries concerned.

The agriculture ministry has also  established the Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries Intellectual Property Protection Consortium to monitor fake products in Asia.

According to a 2015 survey it conducted in six countries and territories including China, Indonesia and Hong Kong, counterfeit products were found in 31 cases.

Wagyu exports at record high

In 2016 the counterfeit problem has mainly been found in wagyu products, due to its rising popularity in Asia as a luxury food item.

Japan exported a record 13.6 billion yen (S$170 million) worth of wagyu in 2016, up 24 per cent from the previous year. Export volume also rose 18 per cent year-on-year to 1,909 tonnes - 20 times higher than a decade ago. 

One-third of exports was shipped to Hong Kong, followed by Cambodia, the United States, Singapore and Thailand. 

China, South Korea and other countries have banned wagyu imports due to the outbreak of mad cow disease in Japan in 2001.

However, some producers’ organisations are seeking trademark registration in China to prevent the value of their brands from being undermined by the spread of fake products.

Registration difficulties

Trademark registration is used for preventing fake luxury food ingredients from being widely distributed. However, there are some cases overseas in which trademark registration was not approved due to invalid reasons.

One example is Yamagata Prefecture’s Yonezawa-gyu beef. In order to prevent meat being branded as Yonezawa-gyu beef by a third party, the council for the promotion of the Yonezawa-gyu beef brand, comprised of local livestock farmers and local governments, applied for a trademark with the Trademark Office of the State Administration for Industry and Commerce of China.

However, in 2015, the Chinese authority denied the application because the trademark would cause confusion, since it includes the name of a place in Japan.

The council again applied for the trademark registration of a logo containing a drawing of a Yonezawa cow accompanied with the letters “Yonezawa-gyu,” but that application was rejected for a similar reason.

“We don’t even understand why our application was not approved. In China, our stance cannot be accepted,” an official of the council said.

Mutual surveillance

The agricultural ministry has therefore encouraged relevant organisations to obtain trademark registrations to protect their brands.

However, they are often not registered as trademarks as intended. If a trademark is violated, a relevant producers’ organisation or other entities need to file a lawsuit on their own, making many of them reluctant to register trademarks.

The ministry started the GI protection system in 2015, making it possible to impose fines on those who produce or sell products with falsified labeling about the place of production.

Similar systems have been introduced in more than 100 countries, including EU nations. The ministry also registered Japan’s GI mark as a trademark in such countries as South Korea and Australia, we well as the European Union, by the end of last year. 

Furthermore, the ministry plans to crack down on fake products by concluding a bilateral agreement to ensure mutual protection of GIs with respective countries.

“If fake products of inferior quality are widely distributed, it will undermine the genuine brand’s products. We would like to boost surveillance to prevent negative effects from occurring,” a ministry official said.