Photo/Illutration A Japanese Black cattle, one of the four representative breeds of wagyu beef (Provided by the National Livestock Breeding Center)

OSAKA--Two men were arrested here March 9 on suspicion of trying to smuggle fertilized eggs of wagyu Japanese cattle into China to meet surging demand for top-grade beef.

Farm ministry officials have been wracking their brains over ways to protect genetic resources, such as fertilized wagyu eggs, given that no laws specifically prohibit the export of fertilized eggs or wagyu sperm.

Osaka prefectural police instead arrested Yusuke Maeda and Toshiki Ogura on suspicion of violating the Domestic Animal Infectious Diseases Control Law by not subjecting the fertilized eggs and sperm to proper animal quarantine inspection.

This is believed to be the first time anyone has been arrested in connection with the attempted export of genetic resources.

Wagyu marbled beef is revered as a delicacy in Japan and overseas, and thus demands high prices.

Maeda, a 51-year-old restaurant operator from Fujiidera, Osaka Prefecture, is believed to have asked Ogura, 64, an unemployed Osaka city resident, to arrange shipment of the fertilized eggs to China.

According to investigative sources, arrangements were made for a ship container to be loaded with vials of fertilized wagyu eggs and sperm last July without having the contents inspected by animal quarantine inspectors. The vessel was anchored at an Osaka port and bound for China.

However, when the ship reached its destination, officials refused to allow the container to be unloaded on grounds it was not accompanied by an animal quarantine certificate.

Ogura returned to Japan and tried to submit the fertilized eggs for animal quarantine inspection in Japan. Farm ministry officials handling inspections suspected something was amiss and filed a criminal complaint with Osaka prefectural police.

Ogura told farm ministry officials that he acted purely as a "mule" for Maeda, who for his part, told reporters that a Chinese acquaintance had asked him to arrange for wagyu sperm to be shipped to Shanghai.

Investigative sources said the fertilized eggs and sperm originated from a ranch in Tokushima Prefecture. Osaka police are looking into how the cache ended up in Ogura's hands as well as who in China was trying to evade quarantine restrictions.

In the past, live wagyu cattle as well as fertilized eggs had been exported to the United States and Australia.

In the case of the latter, the cattle was bred and marketed as wagyu.

Once domestic producers caught on to the high value attached to wagyu abroad, restrictions on exports were put in place.

An outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Japan put an end to exports of wagyu fertilized eggs and sperm from 1999.

While the Japan Livestock Industry Association has long focused on raising the volume of beef exports, one official said: "The genetic resources of wagyu is a national treasure. We cannot allow it to go abroad."

High-quality beef, like wagyu, is a core component of livestock exports. Beef exports increased from 3.4 billion yen ($30.6 million) in 2010 to 24.7 billion yen in 2018.

The maintenance of high quality has been achieved through a rigid selection of the wagyu genes when picking a stud bull.

Concerns about smuggling fertilized wagyu eggs stem from a fear the material could be implanted in other cattle abroad, such as Holsteins, and lead to the raising of wagyu cattle in nations that may not have had stocks of such cattle in the first place.

The farm ministry established a study group in February to look into ways to prevent the export of fertilized eggs. However, experts acknowledged it is difficult to exert total control over wagyu ranches to ensure no such exports occur.

Wagyu covers four breeds of cattle--Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Polled and Japanese Shorthorn--as well as hybrids from those four breeds.

According to the farm ministry, in fiscal 2017, total production volume of wagyu was about 145,000 tons.

(This article was compiled from reports by Yuto Yoneda, Yu Fujinami and Chiaki Ogihara.)