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TOKYO — From Iwakuni’s Chicken Shack in Japan to Kadena’s Genghis Khan Mongolian barbecue on Okinawa, Americans in Japan have learned to love off-base, local meat.

Eat it on a stick, cook it at your table or serve it in a bun — feel free to eat it any way, health officials say. And according to local restaurant owners, Americans still are eating it — despite global outbreaks of beef and chicken diseases.

“I eat what I want to eat,” said Navy Lt. Ben Schwartz, a pharmacist at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. “The news has not affected me at all.”

“If I want McDonald’s, I go to McDonald’s,” said Air Force Staff Sgt. Sonya Faucette of Misawa Air Base’s 14th Aircraft Maintenance Unit. “I don’t care. If it’s my time to go, it’s my time to go.”

Safe on base

In December, a cow in Washington state was discovered infected with mad cow disease, and an outbreak of chicken flu began a rapid spread across Asia. This sounded alarms among international health officials, and Japan banned imported U.S. beef and chicken from several Asian countries.

Although the news has increased consumers’ health concerns, officials say neither disease is a real risk.

In Japan, servicemembers don’t have to worry much about their meat safety, said Lt. Col. Kelly G. Vest, commander of the Japanese district Veterinary Command. Large restaurants and stores buy meat from safe sources. And all meat on bases — in commissaries, eateries and clubs — is tested before it leaves the States and again when it arrives. His inspectors also do routine random checks.

Restaurants, however, are feeling the pinch of customer concern.

“We shifted the source of the beef supply to Australia. And we explain to our customers who ask the origin to assure them the safety,” said Makoto Maeda, manger of the Tony Romas franchise near Camp Lester in Okinawa. “But no Americans have ever asked the question.”

At Iwakuni’s Sanzokuya restaurant, known to servicemembers as the Chicken Shack, beef sales initially dropped but have steadied.

“The sales dropped for two months after the report of mad cow disease, but the sales in January are in fact, exceeding the previous year,” said manager Kota Takahashi.

At Cowboys, a Korean barbecue near Sasebo Naval Base, Japan, “people are choosing pork slightly more than before, but the changes are very subtle,” said Yoshihiro Kaku, a Cowboys manager.

Prevention key

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, can only be passed to other animals, including humans, who consume a diseased cow’s brain or spinal cord material.

Since outbreaks in Europe a decade ago, nations around the world have raised the safety standards for beef, many eliminating brain material from food supplies and testing animals.

After a mad cow outbreak in Japan three years ago, the government radically increased its safety standards.

Japan now screens every domestically raised cow.

“Unless the test proves negative for the disease, no cows are allowed to be sent to the market,” said Kenji Sakurai, part of the Food Safety Bureau’s International Quarantine Team at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

U.S. health officials, however, conduct random tests. Until the United States improves its testing, Japan says it will continue the beef ban.

Chicken is another matter.

Eight countries, including major chicken exporters Thailand and China, have recently killed millions of chickens in response to the avian flu outbreak.

People can only contract the flu through contact with live chickens, health experts say, but Japan also has banned chicken meat from those countries.

Japan also faced an avian flu outbreak last month in the Yamaguchi prefecture near the Marine base in Iwakuni. All the affected chickens were slaughtered, and the problem seems to have died out, according to the World Health Organization.

Iwakuni’s Chicken Shack eatery switched to farms outside the prefecture for its supplies. “Chicken meat is now all from outside Yamaguchi,” said manager Kota Takahashi.

With care, little risk

The WHO and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say there is very little risk for consumers who eat beef and chicken — or even eggs.

“You can take measures when you dine out that will minimize the risk,” said Navy Lt. Cdr. Joye Willcox, a registered dietitian at Yokosuka Naval Hospital. Willcox is a reservist and runs a nutrition practice back home in Raleigh, N.C.

Look for cleanliness. Clean bathrooms, floors and even servers indicate that the restaurant is careful and probably buys quality products.

Seaman Apprentice Nicolas Cole, a culinary specialist at Atsugi Naval Air Facility relies on the public health system to safeguard his favorite food — meat.

“I’ll still eat out, even if there is a mad cow disease outbreak,” he said. “I don’t care, I love meat.”

Seaman Jesus Kennerson, at Yokosuka, echoed his thoughts. “I just take my mind off it and eat.”

— Chiyomi Sumida, Jennifer Svan, Greg Tyler, Hana Kusumoto and Nancy Montgomery contributed to this report.

Experts keep eye on disease

Here’s a look at two animal-related diseases causing concern in Asia:

Avian flu

First found to effect humans in a 1997 Hong Kong outbreak that killed six people and infected 18, the disease is usually spread among birds, notably chickens.

Scientists believe the disease spreads to humans through contact with feces and mucus, not by eating meat, so generally only those exposed to live chickens are at risk.

The World Health Organization has not recommended any travel restrictions in response to the avian flu, but the organization recommends avoiding live chickens in places where outbreaks have occurred.

Scientists don’t believe the disease can spread between humans, but some are worried that the virus could mutate and cause a dangerous human flu.

There have been eight deaths from avian flu, in Vietnam and Thailand, reported to the WHO. Ten countries have reported outbreaks in their chicken populations.

To stop the spread of the flu, countries with the disease have slaughtered tens of thousands of chickens and destroyed tons of eggs.

An outbreak in Japan on Jan. 12 in the Yamaguchi Prefecture — near Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station — was limited to one farm, and all of the chickens and eggs associated with it were destroyed as of Jan. 20, according to the WHO.

Last year 83 people contracted a similar flu in the Netherlands and one person — a veterinarian — died, the WHO reported.

The WHO advises people to ensure all chicken and eggs are cooked thoroughly as a precaution, since influenza viruses are destroyed by heat.

Mad cow disease

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, is a progressive neurological disorder in cows caused by eating spinal cord and nerve tissue of other infected cattle.

It’s linked to a variant of the human brain-wasting illness, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which 153 people have contracted as of December, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Most were in the United Kingdom.

Humans contract the disease by ingesting meat that contains diseased neurological tissue. Since widespread outbreaks of mad cow disease a decade ago in Europe, the beef industry has changed its feed and slaughter procedures to reduce the chance of infected material entering the food supply.

In December, the first case of reported mad cow was found in the United States and led to a massive, but precautionary, meat recall, according to authorities.

Health experts and the CDC say the chance of illness from the meat of infected cattle is low.

Still, Japan and several other countries immediately banned meat from the United States.

U.S. officials are lobbying Japan to stop the ban but Japanese health officials say the U.S. standards are not high enough for Japan. The two nations will reconvene to discuss the ban next month.

In the meantime, Japanese restaurants are scrambling to compensate for the reduced beef stocks. Local reports in Tokyo show beef prices have hit record highs in Japan, along with pork prices as people find more beef alternatives.

The Japanese restaurant chain Yoshinoya, popular with servicemembers in Japan, will pull a favorite beef dish next month, when its U.S. beef supplies run out.

— Source: World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

—For more information: Visit the World Health Organization at: www.who.org and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at: www.cdc.gov

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