But cattle farmers near the central city of Kobe are worried an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the southern prefecture of Miyazaki, another key beef-raising region that often supplies calves to Kobe breeders, could spread to them as well - and impact Japan's premium beef market for years to come.
"I have to think seriously about the risk," said Shigefumi Tanimoto, a rancher for more than 20 years on Awaji Island, just south of Kobe. "If the foot-and-mouth disease came to Kobe, I could lose everything."
The disease broke out about two months ago in Miyazaki, on the southern island of Kyushu. To keep it from spreading, more than 270,000 animals were destroyed, including several valuable stud bulls, bred to sire calves with optimal fattiness. Under a state of emergency declared by the governor, people who lived in particular areas were urged not to travel, and vehicles leaving the prefecture had to have their wheels disinfected.
So far, the outbreak appears to have been contained, and no cows in the Kobe region have been found infected. Last week, the government said it completed preventative measures, allowing area residents to travel freely.
But the disease is highly contagious and the virus can be spread by water droplets, shoes, vehicles and other means.
"Foot-and-mouth disease is notorious for its ability to spread widely by many means especially animal movements," said Peter Roeder, an animal health expert and adviser for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. But given the strong steps authorities have taken, he sees only a low chance of the likelihood of the disease spreading.
The virus causes lesions inside the mouth and on hooves, sometimes resulting in lameness. Calves are much more at risk of dying than older cattle. Humans cannot get infected from eating contaminated meat, but there have been rare cases of transmission from direct contact with sick animals.
All Japanese beef exports have been suspended since April 20. Japan exported 565 tons of beef, worth $40 million (3.8 billion yen) in fiscal 2009 through March, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. The ministry doesn't break down exports of premium "Wagyu" beef, which includes Kobe and Miyazaki brands.
The culling of cattle will reduce the supply of meat available and drive up prices, farmers and experts say.
And even if the disease is contained, the killing of so many cows is a heavy blow to the market for "Wagyu" beef market since it means many farmers in Kyushu will have to restart the selective breeding process that has been key to producing the high-quality meat.
"Usually it takes two to three years to raise and fatten cattle before slaughtering," said Yasuhiro Nakashima, a professor of food and agricultural economics at Tokyo University. The breeding process to replace lost stud bulls could take much longer, experts say.
About 1,300 Miyazaki cattle are sold to the Kobe region every year, according to the agriculture ministry. But this year, sales were postponed or canceled because of the outbreak.
Restaurant owners who specialize in Kobe beef say their products are untainted, but they worry consumers still will avoid the meat. Past scares about mad cow disease and bird flu have hit their businesses, says Kazuho Miyasu, 48, owner of the Kobe steak house Miyasu.
"It usually takes four to five years to get our customers back after so much damage," said Miyasu.
The origin of the virus that causes the disease is still unknown, but prefectural officials say it is similar to a strain found in South Korea.
The owner of Kobe's Teppankyaki Onishi, Masakazu Onishi, said he agrees slaughtering cattle suspected of having the disease is the only way to eradicate it, but he sympathized with farmers.
"Some farmers care for their calves like their own family members," said Onishi. "I would be devastated if I were them."
Back on Awaji Island, Tanimoto says the disease - if it does spread - could destroy years of hard work.
"In the past 20 years I have raised four generations of cattle," said Tanimoto. "Foot-and-mouth disease would wipe out my business."
BEIJING (AP) -- Chinese officials have found 76 tons of milk powder and dairy products laced with a deadly industrial chemical in at least three provinces that was apparently left over from a milk scandal in 2008 that killed six babies and sickened hundreds of thousands.
The discovery shows that toxic milk remains a danger in China despite a crackdown in which dozens of people were arrested and two - a dairy farmer and a milk salesmen - were executed for producing or selling toxic milk.
State media and food safety experts said the recently seized melamine-tainted powder was probably produced in or before 2008 and stockpiled instead of destroyed. China ordered tens of thousands of tainted milk products burned or buried after more than 300,000 children were sickened and at least six died from the contamination. But, crucially, the government did not carry out the destruction itself.
"It is crucial to account for the amount that was contaminated back in 2008 and make sure it is being destroyed or disposed of safely," said Dr. Peter Ben Embarek, a World Health Organization senior scientist on food safety based in Beijing. "As long as part of it is still not accounted for or destroyed properly we will unfortunately see these types of things happening again."
Tainted batches were also found earlier this year in Shanghai and the provinces of Shaanxi, Shandong, Liaoning and Hebei, prompting a 10-day emergency crackdown with inspection teams fanning out to 16 provinces.
Melamine is added to watered-down milk to make it appear rich in protein in quality tests that measure nitrogen, found in both melamine and protein. Health problems from the chemical include kidney stones and kidney damage.
The official Xinhua News Agency reported that the latest discovery occurred in June when authorities found 64 tons of raw materials for making milk powder and 12 tons of finished powder tainted with melamine at a factory in the far-western province of Qinghai. In a separate case, also in June, authorities seized about 1,000 packets of tainted milk powder in the northeastern province of Jilin, Xinhua said.
A spokesman for the National Food Safety Regulating Work Office told Xinhua that the owner and two others at the Dongyuan Dairy Factory had been arrested, along with a person accused of supplying milk powder.
"All tainted milk powder at Dongyuan Dairy Factory have been sealed, and the Dongyuan dairy products that were sold to distributors outside Qinghai have also been seized," Xinhua quoted the spokesman as saying. "We have not yet found tainted milk products on the consumer market."
The contamination was discovered because Dongyuan sent samples of the powder, which it had purchased from Hebei province, to a lab for testing so it could figure out how much to dilute it before selling it, Xinhua said, citing police.
Dongyuan had already sold some of the tainted goods to businesses in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, it said.
In Zhejiang, about three tons of Dongyuan milk powder was used to make ice cream and other products, but most was still being processed and had not entered the market, Xinhua quoted a provincial food safety official as saying.
The Xinhua report didn't say whether there were any reports of people getting sick from the products.
The phone at the Dongyuan factory rang unanswered Friday and China's Administration of Quality Supervision Inspection and Quarantine did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment.
Zhang Zhongjun, a representative for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Beijing, said the latest discoveries highlight China's ongoing struggle to step up food safety.
"We think the situation is improving but there are still some problems," Zhang said. He said many manufacturers are small-scale operations with little food safety awareness and numerous agencies handle enforcement, creating confusion that lets some offenders slip through the cracks.
Embarek, the WHO expert, said a food safety law passed last year has tough new standards for dairy and infant formula, but it will take time to train companies to implement them and regulators to enforce them.
"It will take years to put into practice, but the country is on the way to doing that," he said.