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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Tasting Games

Nov. 21, 2016

The population of deer and wild boar in rural Japan is controlled through culling, and until recently the meat was often thrown away. But now steps are being taken to find ways to make use of the meat.

The move comes as the number of deer and wild boar in the country is exploding, causing serious damage to agriculture.

One of the restaurants that use the meat is located in Tokyo’s fashionable Aoyama district. Staff members there serve a burger made from a mix of deer and wild boar meat, and it's proving popular.

"I could eat a lot of this," says one customer.

Until the 19th century, game meat was not served in many Japanese households because its consumption was uncommon. There are more than three-and-a-half million deer in the country and just less than one million wild boar.

The populations keep getting bigger, as the balance of the ecosystem has changed over the years. The country's top predator, the wolf, was hunted into extinction by the early 20th century. The number of hunters has also fallen by 60 percent over the last 40 years, because of the aging population.

Farmers in the town of Matsuno, in the mountains of Ehime Prefecture, have been fighting a losing battle against deer and wild boar for years.

One rice field was attacked and devoured just before harvest.

"It’s a great blow, a complete loss," the farmer says.

So town officials came up with the idea of catching the animals and using their meat for consumption.

"Until now, the meat was wasted. But we’re catching it, and we want it to be eaten," one local hunter says.

Under Japanese law, game meat must be processed at special facilities before it can be sold to the public. Wild animals often carry parasites and disease, so they need to be processed according to national guidelines to ensure the meat is safe for human consumption.

Two years ago, authorities in Matsuno spent about 330,000 dollars on a processing facility to capitalize on their problem and make a business selling deer and wild boar meat.

Since it opened, sales of game meat have grown to roughly 36,000 dollars a year. In addition, the number of animals culled by hunters has tripled, and crop damage has fallen by two thirds.

"I’m so happy I could scream," says manager Koumei Morishita. "There’s a lot of demand; often more than we can supply.... We want to stabilize the supply system, and then expand it."

At the moment, there are more than 500 game meat processing facilities around the country, and the number keeps growing. However, one expert says most of these facilities can't operate without subsidies.

"At the moment, the central government subsidizes the population control of wild animals in order to protect crops, and those subsidies provide funds that help build the facilities. But it is expensive to maintain the facility’s equipment," says Kenichi Takeda, an associate professor at Shinshu University.

The cost of the operation is reflected in the price of the products. For example, a wild boar shoulder roast costs about 4 dollars for 100 grams. That’s three times as much as a same size piece of pork.

That’s why even though 510,000 deer and 450,000 wild boars are culled every year in Japan, most of the meat is still thrown away.

"Unfortunately, the biggest difference between other countries and Japan is that in Japan, the Food Hygiene Law stipulates that you cannot remove the internal organs of wild animals outdoors. Hunting spots are a long way from the facility and time is of the essence," Takeda says.

In August this year, a trump card aimed at accelerating the game meat supply chain was unveiled. It’s a mobile abattoir, a refrigerated vehicle that can move from location to location, where animals can be processed on-site.

It was developed by the Game Meat Council and Toyota Motor Company, using government subsidies. The truck has all the functionality of a meat-processing facility. As soon as the meat is cut up, it’s put on ice.

Meat processing on-site makes it possible to stay true to the regulations while preserving the quality of the product.

The truck cost about 164,000 dollars, which makes it cheaper than a brick-and-mortar facility and more affordable for municipalities.

"Building a proper facility will cost more than 900,000 dollars. I'm sure the truck can be used for cutting up wild boar," says Harukazu Shiraishi, the mayor of Kyonan in Chiba Prefecture.

Advocates say a properly run culling program would help keep the herds at a more sustainable level and protect farmers' fields as well. They also say a potentially valuable source of protein and income would no longer be thrown away.