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Chef-led group aims to make wild game meat part of Japan's food culture

Chef Norihiko Fujiki's creation -- a western-style venison spring roll -- can even be made simply at home. (Photo courtesy of the Japan Gibier Promotion Association)

Interest in cuisine made using wild game meat, or "gibier" in French, is growing in Japan, but before the meat can be made easily available to curious consumers, the industry has a variety of hurdles standing in its way to becoming part of Japan's food culture.

    Dishes made using game meat are low in fat and high in nutrition. Such food has been a long-standing tradition in European countries, but in Japan, gibier is barely used in cooking. While 60 percent of the roughly 20 billion yen in agricultural damages caused by wild animals comes from deer and wild boar, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the meat of captured animals usually ends up being buried or incinerated. This is because the issues of guaranteeing the safety of the meat, the stable capture and supply of the animals and securing a clear path into the hands of consumers still remain.

    "I hope to spread venison and wild boar meat so that it can be sold at the supermarket and appear at the dinner table alongside the meat of farm-raised animals," said Norihiko Fujiki, the 45-year-old president of the Nagano Prefecture-based Japan Gibier Promotion Association.

    The association has held butchering and cooking workshops all over the country, and the association successfully changed from an NPO to a general incorporated association in March 2017. Currently, the organization is focusing its efforts on drawing up a domestic gibier distribution standard, a set of national rules to make the handling of circulation and trade of game meat operate more smoothly.

    The biggest hitch is proper sanitation management. Different from the distribution of farm-raised animals such as pigs and cows, there is the possibility that wild meat is carrying parasites or the hepatitis E virus. Under the standards for sanitation set by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in 2014, each step in the process must be carefully monitored, from capture and transport, to butchering, processing, preparation and selling, all the way to consumption. The association recommends that when restaurants acquire game meat, they only purchase it from facilities officially authorized as slaughterhouse businesses. There are great risks attached to purchasing meat from online sales that claim to be "directly from the hunter," as there have been many cases where the meat was confirmed to contain animal hair, metals and other foreign substances. As such, the association requests all meat be cooked thoroughly.

    But how can the problem of processing between capture and distribution be solved? According to the agriculture ministry, there were 172 processing and preparation butchering facilities nationwide as of June 2016, but with no way to stably transport the meat from the point of capture. In order to keep the accumulated meat from piling up, the majority of facilities have to sell it at low cost and run a deficit. However, there were 881 restaurants centered in the Tokyo metropolitan area which handle gibier as of June last year, and that number is on the rise.

    A "gibier car" equipped with a butchering and refrigeration compartment is presented at a workshop in the city of Higashimatsuyama, Saitama Prefecture, on June 8, 2017. (Mainichi)

    This is where the use of the promotion association's "gibier cars" comes in. The car is actually a 2-ton truck containing a butchering room and a refrigeration room so that game meat can be quickly processed at the site of capture. Use of the truck is making headway in solving the distribution problems in areas that lack butchering facilities nearby.

    Another problem facing game meat is the lack of a "cut chart" for deer and wild boar, which results in improper butchering of the animal into distinct parts. The creation of such a chart, as well as store labels that list the animal, where, when and how it was captured, the presence of any metals, and other important information is also a large part of the distribution standards being drawn up by the association so that consumers will be able to buy gibier without worries about the journey from capture to the retailer.

    The adoption of the standards is set for fiscal 2018, and those facilities already registered and authorized by municipal government systems will be able to be re-certified through a document screening. A representative for the promotion association stated, "If there is even one accident related to the government promoting game meat, then that will be the end of the project. That's why we must spread the correct information and create a sound and fully developed game meat market."

    But to truly expand the market, proper education for consumers is also needed. Thanks to events to encourage consumption and demand for gibier, the meat has become widely known, but it still has not shed the image of having a "unique taste that isn't very delicious." But association president Fujiki is also the chef of a French restaurant, and travels around the country teaching about the proper way to prepare gibier -- slow-cooking it at a low temperature.

    However, here game meat faces yet another hurdle. In order to reduce agricultural damage, it is necessary to take action against pest animals before summer harvesting season, but the meat taken from animals during that time is low quality. Game meat is at its highest quality in the fall when the animals start building up fat to prepare for winter. The association said that this "mismatch between capture and consumption" has also been pointed out to them. There have been complaints from hunters that wild boars caught in summer don't make any money, and even if the boars appear in rice fields, they still don't gain weight and their meat is nothing but garbage.

    But the gibier promotion association says that any game meat can be made delicious with the right preparation. In cooperation with the Chiba Prefectural Government, the association rolled out a sukiyaki-style soba dish using summer wild boar meat that got great reviews. The association also held the first gibier cuisine contest last year with support from the agriculture ministry. Fujiki hopes that now that knowledge about the proper preparation for game meat has spread among chefs, it will spread to consumers making dishes at home.

    Gibier dishes are already spreading to restaurant chains. From the start of June, the chain Beck's Coffee Shop found in many JR East train stations is offering a game meat plate featuring venison from Nagano Prefecture.

    "I don't want game meat to end up just being a fad," said Fujiki, who oversaw the introduction of the product. "I would like to establish gibier as a part of Japanese food culture."

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