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Does feeding sake lees to cows make beef taste better? Experiment underway in Japan

This photo shows beef cattle being fed sake lees. (Photo courtesy of the Toyama Prefectural Government)

TOYAMA -- Japan is famous for its sake, and for its beef. Now, an initiative in central Japan's Toyama Prefecture launched in fiscal 2020 is bringing the two together, feeding sake lees, or sake kasu, to beef cattle to both reduce waste and make tastier steaks.

    According to Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, households and businesses in the country wasted a total of about 6 million metric tons of food in fiscal 2018. The United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals aim to halve food waste at the retail and consumption levels by 2030.

    Sake lees are the residue left after sake is squeezed out of fermented rice. It has long been an essential ingredient in the Japanese diet, used to make pickled vegetables and fish, and "amazake" sweet fermented rice drinks. However, demand for the lees has diminished as dietary habits have changed.

    Toyama Prefecture is famous for its rice production and has 20 sake breweries. Whenever sake is brewed, it leaves sake lees. Disposing of lees as industrial waste is costly and has been a headache for breweries.

    Meanwhile, the prefectural government launched a project in fiscal 2017 to match food businesses seeking to make effective use of discarded food and crops with livestock farmers considering using them as feed. It has been promoting the concept of "eco-feed," or recycling food waste into animal feed.

    Until now, "okara," or soy pulp, and vegetables that don't meet sales standards have been mixed with rice, corn, and other feedstuffs, but since many of them require refrigeration and sorting, uptake has been slow.

    Meanwhile, sake lees, which contain about 8% alcohol, do not spoil easily even when stored at room temperature, making them easy to handle. With the cooperation of two brewing companies that are members of the Toyama Prefecture Sake Brewery Association, a pilot project using sake lees as feed for beef cattle has begun.

    It is not only the breweries that benefit, as they can sell the sake lees and reduce the cost of disposal, but it turns out the beef quality also becomes better.

    In fiscal 2020, 21 cattle at two farms in the prefecture were fed a kilogram of feed mixed with sake lees every day for three months prior to shipment. The percentage of "marbling" in the meat increased, and 95% of the carcasses were given the highest grade, "A5." In fiscal 2019, before the experiment, only 64% of the carcasses were ranked A5 in the entire prefecture, so the effect was remarkable. As the meat quality is directly related to the price, it is expected to increase livestock farmers' income.

    As to why the meat quality improved, an official at the prefectural government's agricultural technology division said, "We don't know the exact cause and effect yet," but speculated that the alcohol may have kept the cattle's appetite steady during the hot summer months.

    This fiscal year, the number of livestock farmers participating in the pilot project has been increased to five, and data on meat quality is being analyzed in cooperation with the Toyama Prefectural Agricultural, Forestry and Fisheries Research Center's Foods Research Institute and other organizations. The prefectural government has high hopes for the initiative, saying, "We hope that we can add value and create a mechanism to continue the project."

    Ryuichiro Masuda, chairman of the prefecture's sake brewery association and one of the initiators of the eco-feed project, said, "I hope this will also be a good opportunity for people to rediscover the appeal of sake."

    (Japanese original by Shunsuke Takara, Toyama Bureau)

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