February 5, 2008 / 7:07 AM / 11 years ago

Italian farmers pin beef hopes on Japanese cows

COMAZZO, Italy (Reuters Life!) - A farm near Milan is raising Japanese Wagyu cows to woo meat-loving Italians with the world’s most expensive Kobe steaks.

A one-month-old Wagyu cow stands in its box in a farm in Comazzo, south of Milan, January 30, 2008. Farmers in a tiny hamlet near Milan have turned to growing Japanese cows, hoping their meat would beef up profits hit by rising feed prices and falling meat consumption in Italy. REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo

The Italians are hoping the tender, marbled beef will revive falling beef consumption and give their profits a boost.

Described by one chef as “the Ferrari of meat,” Kobe has been making inroads in Italy even though it costs about 100 euros ($148.2) per kg to buy. That’s twice the price of Italy’s Fiorentina T-bone steaks from Chianina cows.

Chocolate-colored Yoko, Waghino and Hirino, stumbling in their stall on a farm just south of Milan, are about a month old and are the first Wagyu calves to be born in Italy. They come from embryos imported from Australia.

They will be meticulously reared and coddled for 2-3 years, with massages and a diet including beer to give them the famous marble-like meat texture webbed with fat veins for the first “Made in Italy” Kobe steak to land on someone’s plate.

Matteo Scibilia, chef at a haute cuisine restaurant near Milan and an adviser to Italian retailer Metro, cannot wait to give his connoisseur clients a taste.

“There is a demand for high quality meat. Kobe beef may sell for 300 euros a kilo in a restaurant. It is a niche product, like a Ferrari for meat,” said Scibilia, who currently uses imported Kobe beef at his restaurant, Osteria della Buona Condotta.

Fausto Cremonesi, veterinary professor at Milan’s Universita degli Studi and a driving force behind the plan to raise Wagyu cows in Italy, said the project is aimed at boosting farmers’ dwindling profits as well as reviving demand.

“This meat has very specific qualities. Our goal is to offer it to Italian consumers, to have it arriving fresh to our tables, without traveling thousands of kilometers,” he said.

Scibilia said a sight of the raw meat with its trademark marbled fat may put off some health-conscious diners at first, but the tenderness and rich flavor would win their hearts.

Cremonesi said Kobe beef is low cholesterol, rich in antioxidants and its fat is easy to digest.

BEEFING UP PROFITS

Farmers and veterinary surgeons involved in the 42,000 euro pilot project to breed Wagyu cows in Italy believe it will pay off as a grown Wagyu cow may sell for about 100 times more than a typical Italian one.

“It is worth it ... It can turn into a profitable business,” said Rosangela Garlappi, a vet who spent sleepless nights when the calves were born at her family farm and one of them fell ill.

Garlappi, who has about 300 milk cattle at her farm, said it was difficult to forecast profits, but any gain would be welcome as a standard milk calf sells for about 0.80-1.20 euros per kilo — barely enough to cover production costs.

Slideshow (3 Images)

Italian cattle farmers struggled last year to pass on higher animal feed costs on the back of a rally in grain prices, while domestic meat demand fell.

Beef consumption in Italy — weak in the past few years after a mad cow disease scare — fell 4.2 percent in the first 10 months of 2007 as food price hikes forced Italians to trim spending, said Italy’s major farming body Coldiretti.

Farmers aim to have a Wagyu herd of about 200 cows in Italy in a few years, said Ernesto Beretta, a veterinary researcher who works on the project for Coldiretti.

Additional reporting by Chikafumi Hodo in Tokyo, editing by Paul Casciato

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