Savoring sizzling slices of U.S. beef, Shuji Shimoji doesn't care if the barbecue restaurant where he is dining is the only one in Japan brave enough to serve American beef so far.
"It's delicious," said a grinning Shimoji, 23, bringing the juicy beef strips to his lips with chopsticks. "I wouldn't be eating this if I were worried, would I?"
Zenshoku Co., which specializes in barbecue restaurants, began serving American beef for dinner at 57 of its outlets on Tuesday — the first to do so since Japan's ban on U.S. beef was lifted last month.
American beef has only been trickling in to Japan since the easing of the ban, imposed in 2003 due to mad cow fears.
The ban was lifted in December 2005 only to be imposed again a month later, after prohibited spinal bones were found in a veal shipment — an error by U.S. plant workers and a government inspector.
Many Japanese are still worried about the safety of U.S. beef, which has yet to be sold at Japanese supermarkets — except for the nation's five Costco stores, run by the Japan unit of U.S. warehouse retailer Costco Wholesale Corp.
But Zenshoku Chief Executive Shigemi Oishi says he's sure the new checks in place that followed talks between the U.S. and Japanese governments now ensure the beef imports are safe.
"Japanese are conformist and so if no one is eating it, then they don't eat it. But once people start eating it, then it will slowly catch on," said Oishi. "The fears about American beef are exaggerated."
Japan was once the top destination for U.S. beef, importing $1.4 billion worth of the meat a year. But that was before Tokyo's decision in December 2003 to ban American beef imports after the first case of mad cow disease in the U.S.
The U.S. government repeatedly has said the beef is safe because of stringent checks. But such assurances have done little to allay the fears of Japanese consumers about mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a degenerative nerve disease in cattle.
Eating contaminated meat products has been linked to the rare but fatal human variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in more than 150 deaths. The outbreak, mostly in Britain, peaked in the 1990s.
Zenshoku's Oishi said he decided to use U.S. beef after his company went to inspect American ranches and had chosen cows that were carefully traced to ensure their safety.
But the restaurant was making sure the origins of the beef were clearly labeled on the menu _ U.S., Australia, Japan _ and the plates the waiters brought filled with mounds of red beef slices from the U.S. even had tiny American flags on them.
Oishi denied he wasn't being out first with American beef as a publicity stunt, and acknowledged he may be even taking some risks in serving U.S. beef amid the mad cow fears.
He also stressed that people were free not to eat American beef, and that's why his restaurants were serving Australian and Japanese beef as well.
The chain, which operates some 80 restaurants in the Tokyo area and the region near Osaka Prefecture (state) where it's based, is merely serving American beef so customers can enjoy delicious meals at a reasonable price, the company said.
At the Zenshoku restaurants, a serving of American roast costs 480 yen ($4.10), while a bigger serving of a variety of cuts costs 1,200 yen ($10), or about 25 percent cheaper than the comparable dishes with Japanese beef. The restaurant also offers an all-you-can-eat course starting at about 2,000 yen ($17).
In Japan, American beef sells for a fraction of the cost of Japanese beef because of higher labor costs here and the economies of scale at American farms.
But Australian beef competes well in pricing, and the Australian cattle industry has jumped right into the opportunity presented by the stumbling of U.S. beef exporters.
But Yasuhiko Imura, a Zenshoku manager, said some people prefer the taste of the less fatty American beef to Japanese beef and say they can eat American beef more often without worrying about their diet.
Fast-food chain Yoshinoya D&C Co., which made its fortune on the beef bowl, a serving of hot rice topped with slices of American beef, has been bullish about U.S. beef but has yet to start offering the dish.
But the Japanese worries about U.S. beef are deep.
Even Seiyu Ltd., the Japan unit of U.S. retail giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc., with about 400 stores nationwide, isn't selling American beef just yet.
A survey by Tokyo-based marketing researcher Intage earlier this month found that 54 percent of the respondents said they wouldn't buy American beef. A similar survey in December 2005 found 45.4 percent or respondents said they wouldn't buy U.S. beef.
The love for American beef is still limited at best in Japan to places like the Zenshoku chain.
Yoshihiro Teramoto, a 62-year-old farmer, said he wants to eat all kinds of beef and came to a Zenshoku restaurant because he knew the chain would be serving American beef.
"I love beef," he said. "But I shouldn't eat it too much. It's not good for my health to eat too much meat."