Australian Ambassador to Japan John McCarthy is spearheading a campaign to get Australian beef back on Japanese dinner plates by taking part in a series of forums across the nation this week.

The Aussie Beef Forums, organized by Meat and Livestock Australia, opened in Sapporo on Monday with the message that the country’s meat is both perfectly safe and absolutely delicious. The ambassador will travel on to Sendai, Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka and Fukuoka during the rest of the week to promote a key Australian export.

“We’re actually trying to get through two messages,” McCarthy said in an interview with The Japan Times. “First, that the conditions surrounding the production of Australian beef ensure that it is extremely safe. There has never been BSE in Australia and there are very stringent rules and regulations that would preclude BSE.”

BSE, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, otherwise known as mad cow disease, hit domestic Japanese cattle last fall and led to an overall plunge in beef sales.

The absence of BSE in Australia is believed to be partly due to the country’s ban on imports of meat-and-bone meal, an animal feed suspected of transmitting the infection, McCarthy said. It has also been more than 100 years since the last reported outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Australia.

“The second message is that Australian beef actually tastes very good. The beef that is sent to Japan includes a lot that is specifically raised for the Japanese market, so it’s wrong to suggest that it tastes different or is not as good.”

The forums are the most recent gambit in a push to help sales of Aussie beef recover after the BSE outbreak last September in Japanese cattle.

“Sales of Australian beef in the year to March last year were in the region of $1 billion; with the discovery of BSE, all beef consumption dropped and the situation this March was that our beef exports were down 55 percent,” said McCarthy, who became ambassador to Japan in July 2001.

“Since then, there has been some improvement, but what we’d like to see is overall consumption of beef to go up. We would clearly like consumption of Australian beef to go up in quantitative terms, and as a corollary of those two things, we’d like to increase our market share.”

A year ago, Aussie beef accounted for 32 percent of the Japanese market; in the last few months that figure has been around 28 percent.

There are signs of consumers returning to beef, however, and “there is some room for optimism,” McCarthy said, pointing out that sales figures are back to 85 percent of what they were before the discovery of BSE, while sales for July are also up on those for June.

Other than the beef issue, the envoy voiced concerns over lagging investment — both Australian investment in Japan and Japanese investment in Australia. Japanese investment in Australia has not grown for about eight years, he said, while investment from Europe and the United States has grown dramatically in the same period.

It is hoped that a trade and economic accord, preliminary talks on which have just started, should help rectify this imbalance, he said.

One of the deals under consideration is a free-trade agreement, and Australia would welcome any such far-reaching deal, McCarthy said, although cautioning that reaching an accord “is not going to be an easy exercise.”

“It needs to be stressed that agriculture is obviously going to be a problem in any FTA between Australia and Japan, as the agricultural lobby is concerned about Japan making any concessions on agricultural tariffs, while our position is that to conclude an FTA, we have to deal with agriculture,” he said.

“That’s partly because a significant proportion of our trade with Japan is composed of agricultural products — 25 percent — and we see it as being very difficult within the rules of the World Trade Organization to conclude an FTA that doesn’t include agriculture.”

McCarthy, who earlier served as ambassador to Indonesia, the U.S., Vietnam, Mexico and Thailand, praised Japan’s contribution to the U.N. peacekeeping mission in East Timor, where a Self-Defense Forces engineering battalion is working alongside Australian and South Korean soldiers.

“Despite Japan’s constitutionally imposed reticence to take a forward-looking approach in terms of its strategic reach in the region, it is trying to behave more like a normal country, which we’re very much in favor of,” he said.

On the question of the Kyoto Protocol, McCarthy said Australia is closely examining the pact and has decided that, for the moment, it will not sign the agreement on reducing global emissions.

“Prime Minister John Howard has recently stated that if it can be established that it is in Australia’s interests to sign the agreement, then we will,” he said. “But thus far we have not established that it is in Australia’s interests.”

He denied that Canberra’s position has been in any way influenced by the decision of the administration of President George W. Bush to withdraw from the treaty, pointing out that some of the terms of the pact would place “special burdens” on Australia and adding that the treaty “doesn’t really make a lot of sense unless the Americans are in it,” along with major developing countries, including China, India and Nigeria.

The official position on Japan’s whaling program elicited a punchier response. “We don’t like it,” he said.

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