By TOMOKO A. HOSAKA
TOKYO (AP) -- Japan's government on Monday joined the fight to contain an expanding outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease that is threatening its prize beef industry in a southern prefecture.
Amid criticism that he was slow to respond, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama established an emergency task force and is considering spending $1.1 billion to prevent further spread of the disease and coordinate financial support for affected farmers.
"This is a very serious problem," Hatoyama said. "By working hard with local officials, I want to resolve this as quickly as possible."
The disease was first detected April 20 in Miyazaki prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu. The outbreak -- Japan's first since 2000 -- prompted the country to suspend beef exports for at least three months.
Since then, infections have spread to more than 110 facilities in Miyazaki, according to the prefectural government. Some 85,000 cows and pigs will be killed as a result.
Miyazaki's beef industry produces "wagyu" cattle which are world famous for intricate marbling, tenderness and high prices.
The Miyazaki Livestock Improvement Association, which manages the breeding bulls for the Miyazaki brand of cattle, will slaughter 49 remaining seed bulls along with 259 offspring. The facility had previously evacuated its six most important bulls, which produce nearly all of the semen sold to farmers for artificial insemination. Testing has shown that the six bulls are not infected with foot-and-mouth disease.
Shoji Haneda, president of the central Miyzaki branch of Japan Agricultural Cooperatives, estimated that local farmers would lose $173 million because of the outbreak.
"But it's impossible to calculate how big the physical and psychological costs might become," he said Sunday.
Japan exported 565 tons of beef worth $40 million during the last fiscal year, mostly to Vietnam, Hong Kong and the U.S., according to the agriculture ministry.
At its first meeting Monday evening, the new task force discussed several measures, including increasing the number of roadside disinfection locations and dispatching soldiers to man checkpoints. The government will dip into reserves from this year's budget to pay for outbreak-related costs.
Foot-and-mouth disease is often fatal for cloven-hoofed animals including cows, sheep, pigs and goats, causing blisters on the mouth and feet. It does not affect humans.
South Korea has slaughtered thousands of cows since January in its first outbreak of the disease in eight years.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.