Japan lifts foot-and-mouth state of emergency

Japan lifted a state of emergency Tuesday in a southern region known for its prized and pampered cattle, after a three-month foot-and-mouth outbreak forced the slaughter of almost 300,000 farm animals.

The highly contagious virus, which rarely affects humans but sickens cloven-hoofed animals, had forced the suspension of meat sales from Miyazaki prefecture.

"Wagyu" cattle - from both Miyazaki on Kyushu island and Kobe on Honshu island - are famed for being pampered, fed beer and massaged daily, sometimes with sake, and some are even played classical music for relaxation.

But this year's emergency led to a ban on transporting animals, the closure of many public places, and a request for residents to avoid non-essential travel as the virus can easily be spread by people, for example on their shoes.

"I call off the declaration of a state of emergency entirely as of midnight on the 27th (of July)," said Miyazaki Governor Hideo Higashikokubaru.

About 288,000 animals have been culled since Japan's first foot-and-mouth outbreak since 2000 was confirmed in late-April.

Most of the affected livestock were pigs, but a large number of cattle and some of the region's most prized stud bulls were also culled and buried.

The government has so far paid out about nine billion yen (100 million dollars) in compensation to affected farmers and expects the amount may more than double to 20 billion yen, media reports said.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan told a government taskforce meeting Tuesday: "Of course we can't let down our guard yet, but I ask those concerned to make efforts to revive animal farming."

Farm Minister Masahiko Yamada told reporters that if no more cases were detected, the government would ask the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) later this year to recognise Japan as free from the disease.

The beef from Wagyu cattle is sought after worldwide for its intense marbling with mostly unsaturated fat, and the variety from Miyazaki typically wholesales for around 160 to 320 dollars per kilogramme in Japan.