Forbidden Beef: Japan Takes Liver Sashimi Off the Menu

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Japan is a country of exotic cuisine, much of it consumed raw—up to now. Raw beef liver, human flesh, and foie gras—have all been served to Nippon’s gourmands in the last three months, but as of July 1, one of these three is no longer on the menu, and it's not the canapés for cannibals.

This past Sunday the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare banned selling raw beef liver for consumption in the nation’s restaurants. No longer can Japan's downtrodden “salary men” look forward to getting rid of their work fatigue by consuming a bright red plate of uncooked cow organs and washing them down with a pint of Asahi Super Dry beer.

On the last day before the ban Saturday, all the Korean barbecue restaurants were packed in Tokyo, because the customers wanted to taste the famous dish before the ban went into effect. Supermarkets put warning labels on all the raw liver products in aisles (at left), advising buyers: “This is not meant to be consumed as it is. Heat and eat.”

There are also artificial raw beef liver dishes (shown below) made from the devil’s tongue plant (konnyaku) available for vegetarians or timid folk who will miss the real thing. The consistency, texture and taste are remarkably similar.  

Recommended Reading

Japan has a great fondness for raw food products: the raw fish (sashimi) which everyone knows, raw beef (yukke), raw horsemeat (basashi), and the perennial favorite, raw beef liver aka “liver sashimi”(rebasashi).  However, there have been some deadly cases of food poisoning involving raw meat in the last few years, and the public and the government are growing more aware of the risks of raw cuisine.

“This is a valid preventive measure,” explains a spokesman for the Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Labor. “The O-157 strain of E. coli bacteria was found concentrated in cow livers. Consumption of raw meat in general, including beef liver, can cause food poisoning, whether the meat is fresh or not.”  However, if boiled or cooked, beef liver can still be sold at restaurants and bars. Only the “liver-sashimi” is banned from sale. The ministry spokesman said the consequences of consuming raw beef liver include diarrhea, vomiting, and brain damage, depending on the situation. “Our research panel discovered the presence of this bacteria in beef liver in December 2011, but this has nothing to do with any sorts of health consequences of the 3/11 Fukushima nuclear accident,” he added. According to Kyodo News, five people died from food poisoning and 180 people suffered from diarrhea and vomiting after eating raw beef in April last year.  

While the Ministry has issued a firm rules against human consumption of raw beef liver, there is no such prohibition in Japan against the consumption of human flesh. Although, after an artist  charged customers ¥20,000 ($250) for a plate of what he said was his own surgically removed testicles in May, there have been some calling for regulations on cannibalism. According to the AFP, the artist, Mao Sugiyama, 22, "said steps were taken so the act met all relevant laws, including a ban on organ sales, processing of medical waste and even food sanitation requirements." Japan currently has no laws banning the consumption of human meat or regulating how to prepare it. Sugiyama's dish included mushrooms and a parsley garnish. 

(For the record: There have been incidents of Japanese serial killers who dabbled in cannibalism, but "long pig" is not a traditional part of Japanese cuisine.)

While Sugiyama's particular dining event cannot be repeated (he's tweeted, "I receive questions ... asking 'Will there be a next time? Please host it again.' But there is only one set of male organ"), authorities have sought to deter other would-be self-carving carnivores. So far, though, Japanese police have been stymied in their attempts to come up with a law Sugiyama may have violated. A detective in the Tokyo Police Department told The Atlantic Wire, “If you cut off a dead person’s penis and served it, well that would be a violation of the penal code about desecrating a corpse, but not if someone still alive has it done on his own initiative. The laws never anticipated things like this—cutting off your own testicles, that’s just nuts.”

The ward government for Tokyo Suginami, where the cannibal snack was served, reportedly filed a complaint with the local police on June 25, arguing that it amount to the display of obscene materials. The ward spokesman argued, “It’s obscene in that it made many people ill and the organs served were sexual. Unforgivable.” However, the dishes prepared serving the organs left the original forms almost unrecognizable and decidedly asexual, making the “obscenity” charges hard to stand up, say police sources.

However, while Japanese people still may be able to savor human flesh, raw beef liver is definitely off the menu when dining out. But they can take solace in knowing they're still better off than the people of California, who are no longer allowed to eat foie gras. Foie gras is totally legal in Japan---in fact, it’s on the menu at Wendy’s. The Foie Gras Burger…a tad on the pricey side (¥1,280, or about $16), politically incorrect, delicious (they say), and they even serve it cooked.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.