U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack suggested Wednesday that restarting talks on beef imports, subject to prolonged restrictions because of concerns over mad cow disease, will take priority on his visit to Japan.
Vilsack and Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Hirotaka Akamatsu are scheduled to hold talks Thursday.
“I think it’s important to recognize that we have a new government here in Japan and a relatively new government in the United States,” Vilsack told reporters, expressing his hope to resume full-scale discussions, including those on technical matters.
The bilateral talks have been stalled, diplomatic sources said, since the administration of George W. Bush asked Japan to end the ban on imports of U.S. beef from cattle aged over 20 months, only for Tokyo to refuse.
Some U.S. officials and lawmakers say the age rule has no scientific basis.
There have been media reports that Vilsack will propose that Akamatsu allow imports of beef from cattle aged less than 30 months, instead of urging the government to end the import control immediately.
Vilsack declined comment on the speculation, only saying, “Our hope is (that) we can express a great deal of flexibility in terms of how we move forward.”
Japan has limited U.S. beef imports since the first case of the disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, was found there in 2003.
The meeting between Vilsack and Akamatsu will be the first fully publicized occasion for the countries to have talks on the beef issue since the Democratic Party of Japan came to power last year.
“The most important thing is building on the relationship we have and to be able to develop a closer relationship,” Vilsack said. But he also said, “This is not an easy issue” for either country.
The United States is confident that “we can provide safe and quality products at an affordable cost,” Vilsack said.
He was speaking after joining a symposium in Tokyo where he said Japan and the U.S. should cooperate further in addressing global food security through such measures as helping boost productivity and build infrastructure in developing economies.
The two leading economies in the world have a “unique role,” Vilsack said. “I believe it’s important . . . that we engage in bilateral opportunities to improve and advance global food security.”
The impact of the global economic downturn caused some 1 billion people in the world to suffer from malnutrition in 2009, he said, citing U.N. estimates. Although the number has been declining as world economic conditions have improved, the dire situation remains unsolved, he added.