Beef safety audit passes muster

Details remain but ban may end in June; U.S. to allow checks

by Yumi Wijers-Hasegawa

The U.S. has resolved most of Japan’s concerns about U.S. beef processors, Japanese government officials said Friday, clearing the way for Japan to lift its import ban on U.S. beef.

Although no date has been set, government sources said lifting of the ban could take place as early as June.

During a three-day technical meeting that ended Friday, Japan approved the audit report of the U.S. compliance checks on 35 meat processing plants hoping to ship beef to Japan.

Japanese officials said the audit addressed most of Japan’s concerns for quality control. Although minor clerical and procedural problems are present at some facilities, Japan believes “they are not at a level that could prevent acceptance or use of the products,” the officials said in a statement.

“We think there is no evidence that U.S. exports have problems with safety,” said Hirofumi Kugita, director of the agricultural ministry’s animal health division. “From here on, we would like to carefully explain to consumers the explanations we received from the U.S.”

Chuck Lambert, undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said at a news conference that details still need to be worked out, but the U.S. is hopeful Japan will lift its ban on U.S. beef as early as June.

“End of June is a target,” he said.

However, more work lies ahead for the two governments.

Both sides agreed that Japan will inspect U.S. meatpackers prior to resuming imports. The two sides also agreed that Japanese inspectors can attend checks of U.S. facilities when the U.S. conducts inspections without advance notice after exports resume, U.S. and Japanese officials said.

Japanese consumers demanded these two measures during public discussions with Japanese health and agricultural officials throughout Japan in April.

Even if Japan reopens its lucrative beef market to the U.S., the real battle for the U.S. beef industry will be convincing Japanese consumers that U.S. beef is safe.

Many Japanese consumers say they don’t plan to buy U.S. beef, even if imports resume.

“I just don’t believe U.S. beef is safe,” said Maki Ishii, a homemaker living in the Nihonbashi district in Tokyo. “I get the impression Japan just wants to bring a gift to the U.S., and that food safety is a secondary issue.”

Japanese media reported that Tokyo hopes to lift the beef ban in mid-June before Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi meets U.S. President George W. Bush.

Asked about the June date presented by Lambert, Kugita of the farm ministry said Tokyo will hold more discussions with the U.S. “I believe Mr. Lambert understands that,” he said.

Assuming the safety standards put forward by the U.S. are truly in place, Japan must then further hold discussions on what measures are needed for resuming imports, he said.

Lambert said once markets are reopened, the U.S. will launch a campaign to reach consumers. “There are any number of channels to improve understanding,” he said.

Japan was once the most lucrative overseas market for U.S. beef, with consumers spending 150 billion yen on the product in 2003.

The first time Tokyo shut its market to U.S. beef was in December 2003, after one Canada-born cow tested positive in the U.S. for mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

Tokyo lifted the ban once last December on condition that beef exported to Japan were from cows under 21 months old and that BSE-risk parts, including brains and spinal cords, were removed.

But Japan slammed the door in January after customs inspectors at Narita airport found spinal cords in a U.S. veal shipment, which Japan banned in the agreement.

The question remains over what will happen if a meatpacker makes another mistake after imports are resumed.

No details were discussed about what steps Japan would take, according to officials of both governments.

Information from Kyodo added