Consumers still cold to U.S. beef

Hearings skeptics suspect 'inconvenient facts' left out

by Yumi Wijers-Hasegawa

Consumers are far from convinced that U.S. beef is safe, despite government efforts to ease public concerns through 10 nationwide public hearings on the issue.

The 10 hearings have been held since the beginning of June. The last one wrapped up Wednesday in Tokyo.

But the Tokyo hearing, like the others, ended up amplifying consumer skepticism, especially following a news report the same day that the government may give the go-ahead to U.S. beef imports as early as next week.

One man from a consumer cooperative asked of the report, “Does that mean consumers agreed (to restart imports)? I really don’t think so. We need a proper explanation.”

More than 370 participants, many from consumer groups and food services, attended the hearing in Chiyoda Ward.

Many expressed anger that last December’s government audit of U.S. and Canadian slaughterhouses wasn’t released until April and had passages, including the number of inspectors at each facility, blacked out, raising suspicions that inconvenient facts were concealed.

A consumer from Kyoto, holding up a copy of the report, said: “Is this what the government, which is supposed to protect us, issues? I think the conclusion (to resume imports) was there from the beginning and Japan is just going along with what the U.S. says.”

Only a few people from restaurant businesses and a self-proclaimed “beef lover” voiced support for the resumption.

Even some government officials admitted they had concerns about aspects of the U.S. beef inspection system.

When a woman from the consumer group BSE Citizen’s Network pointed to fears that some U.S. cattle feed may contain bone meal — which was banned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as an additive in 1997 — Hiroshi Nakagawa, director general of the Agricultural Ministry’s Food Safety and Consumer Affairs Bureau, said: “We recognize there are certain problems with the feed and the (U.S.) surveillance. We told the U.S. that consumers might not buy U.S. beef under such circumstances. We have not heard, so far, of any plan (for the U.S. to change its procedures), but we will keep telling them that.”

In February, 45 cows in Hokkaido were destroyed after one at a farm there died of mad cow disease. The cow had been fed bone meal, which Japan banned after its first of over two dozen mad cow cases surfaced in 2001.

The attendees demanded U.S. beef be subject to the same procedures against bovine spongiform encephalopathy as Japanese beef, such as “thorough inspections” of feed, BSE tests on all cattle, complete traceability and removal of risk materials.

Some of these demands are believed impossible to meet given the size of the U.S. herd.

After a meeting in May of experts from the two countries, the Japanese government said the U.S. had resolved most of its concerns, and the two sides agreed to start talks on resuming imports after the public hearings were completed.

Japan first closed its market to U.S. beef in December 2003, after a Canadian-born cow tested positive in the U.S. for mad cow disease, the first BSE case in the U.S.

Tokyo lifted the ban last December on condition that U.S. beef exported to Japan come from cows under 21 months old and that parts at higher risk of BSE contamination, including brains and spinal cords, be removed.

But Japan shut the door again just one month later, after customs inspectors at Narita airport found backbones in a U.S. veal shipment.

Tokyo Medical University professor Kiyotoshi Kaneko, who was part of a 12-member panel of experts tasked with assessing U.S. beef safety, told The Japan Times the government must take the concerns of consumers seriously.

“Food safety and consumer reassurance are the most important thing,” Kaneko said.

In April, half the members of the Food Safety Commission’s prion committee, including Kaneko, resigned over what they considered hasty moves to restart U.S. imports.

Although he said the main reason he quit was to concentrate on his work as a professor, Kaneko said the way the government tried to establish the safety of U.S. beef was “problematic and dangerous,” because of its misleading questions to the panel.

“For example, we were asked what the risk of mad cow disease would be if the U.S. were to only export beef from cows aged under 21 months with high-risk parts removed,” Kaneko said. “The issue is whether these conditions will really be met, but we were not given any means to check that. As a result, high-risk parts were not removed and imports had to be banned again.”