U.S. official senses beef trade progress

by Kaho Shimizu

Japan indicated its intention to ease import curbs on American beef during a two-day bilateral economic dialogue in Tokyo, a senior U.S. official said Friday.

Japan currently only allows imported U.S. beef from cattle aged 20 months or younger, due to concerns over mad cow disease, and the United States is urging Japan to abolish the age limit.

According to U.S. Undersecretary of Farm and Foreign Agricultural Service Mark Keenum, Japan proposed having its Food Safety Commission study easing the age restrictions to cattle 30 months old and under.

“We have limited market access now . . . our hope is that (Japan) will listen to the international scientific body, which has determined that our products are in fact safe,” Keenum said at a news conference at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo after attending sub-Cabinet level talks that ended Friday.

The World Organization for Animal Health voted in May to give the U.S. its “controlled-risk” rating for mad cow disease. The rating means controls are effective and meat from U.S. cattle is safe regardless of its age.

“The reaction by our Japanese counterparts was that they’re looking to 30 months of age restrictions on U.S. beef,” Keenum said, adding it is his impression that Japan is trying to ease restrictions in a step-by-step approach.

Meanwhile, a Foreign Ministry official declined to elaborate on the talks between the two sides, but said the proposal for 30 months “is not correct.”

The official said Japan’s policy of allowing U.S. meat from cattle 20 months old or younger remains unchanged and any decision on easing import restrictions in the future will be based on scientific study.

Japan banned U.S. beef in December 2003 after the first case of mad cow disease was found in the U.S.

The ban was lifted two years later to allow U.S. exports of beef products from animals of up to 20 months of age. But Tokyo again suspended imports in January 2006 after receiving a shipment of veal that contained prohibited spinal bones. Japan resumed imports last year with the current age limit.