Ban on U.S. beef to end after meatpacker checks

by Yumi Wijers-Hasegawa

Japan agreed Wednesday to lift its ban on U.S. beef imports after on-site inspections of U.S. meatpackers by Japanese experts starting early next week, Japanese officials said.

Tokyo’s first group of experts is expected leave Japan Saturday to start checking some of the 35 U.S. beef processing facilities authorized to ship beef to Japan, a condition set forth by Tokyo in the latest talks before resuming imports, the officials said.

It will take about a month to complete the process, the officials said. Actual sales of U.S. beef in Japan are expected to begin at the end of July.

Briefing reporters Wednesday evening, officials of the foreign, agriculture and health ministries said the talks were “satisfactory for both sides,” because most conditions set by Japan were accepted by the U.S., and they agreed on what each party should do.

In addition to the conditions earlier discussed by the two sides — which centers on Japan checking U.S. facilities prior to import and Japanese participation in snap inspections conducted by the U.S. after imports resume — the two sides agreed in the latest talks that Japanese officials can also review “ranches, feedlots and feed mills” to confirm production records, transfers and feeding practices, and that Japan can conduct stricter checks at the port by opening all beef shipments.

Tokyo also agreed to expedite import procedures on facilities that were found to be in compliance with export rules. But imports will begin at the same time from all authorized processors.

The agreement hammered out Wednesday will be the second time Tokyo has lifted the ban on U.S. beef. Japan partially rescinded a two-year-old ban in December but reimposed it in January when a U.S. meatpacker in New York sent a shipment of veal with backbone, violating an export agreement between the two countries on preventing mad cow disease, known formally as bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

Wednesday’s agreement came after a lengthy teleconference that began Tuesday evening, continued well past midnight and resumed Wednesday morning.

The teleconference was attended by officials from Japan’s foreign, agriculture, and health ministries, as well as Chuck Lambert, acting undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and other U.S. officials.

The announcement that Japan and the United States had reached a deal on resuming imports of U.S. beef drew mixed reactions Wednesday from restaurants and supermarket chains due to lingering concerns over food safety.

Restaurant chain Yoshinoya D&C Co., known for its popular “gyudon” bowls of shaved beef on rice, said it is eager to resume sales of the dish with U.S. beef, which it says gives the signature dish its characteristic flavor.

“It will take at least 1 1/2 to two months before we can put beef bowls back in our stores” after the first shipment of U.S. beef comes to Japan, Yoshinoya spokeswoman Yukiko Abe said. “But we will do so as soon as possible,” as many customers are waiting.

In a stark contrast, however, many supermarket chains said they were reluctant to stock U.S. beef again.

“We have no plan to sell U.S. beef for the time being, even if imports resume, because consumers are still concerned,” said a spokesman for Ito-Yokado Co. The supermarket chain will sell the meat once the company judges consumers have regained confidence in it.

Aeon Co. spokeswoman Kaori Watanabe said the supermarket chain will make a decision on U.S. beef after carefully examining consumer sentiment.

Japan showed firm resolve on the beef issue this time around because opposition and skepticism from consumers was growing toward both governments. Ten nationwide hearings on U.S. beef safety the Japanese government held after the bilateral talks in May only deepened suspicions when it was found that reports on Japanese inspections of U.S. meatpacking facilities had not only been delayed, but also censored to black out crucial details.

At the last hearing involving the government, consumers and the food industry, held in Tokyo on June 14, angry consumers said their voices were being ignored and claimed the resumption of imports had been decided all along due to U.S. pressure and a summit scheduled later this month between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and U.S. President George W. Bush.

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

The ban was partially lifted last December on condition that beef exported to Japan come from cows under 21 months old and that parts considered at risk — including brains and spinal cords — were removed. But the doors were slammed shut again in January when spinal cord was found in a U.S. veal shipment at Narita airport.