A food service industry group and meat producers from the U.S. and Australia on Tuesday urged the Japanese government not to invoke emergency curbs on imported beef, saying such restrictions would hurt consumers as well as the food industry and exporters.

At a news conference in Tokyo, Japan Foodservice Association Chairman Kiwamu Yokokawa expressed his group’s staunch opposition to an expected move by the government to invoke the safeguard measures.

Under World Trade Organization rules, Japan is entitled to raise its tariff on imported beef to 50 percent from the current 38.5 percent if the nation’s quarterly import volume surges by 17 percent over the same period in the previous year.

Japan’s beef imports fell sharply after the September 2001 outbreak of mad cow disease. The April-June import volume this year is therefore expected to surpass the 17 percent threshold over last year’s volume, giving rise to fears among deflation-plagued food service providers that the government may invoke the measure as early as this summer.

“BSE was a disaster for the food service industry and consumers,” said Yokokawa, who is also chairman of restaurant chain operator Jonathan’s Co. “A tariff increase to protect domestic beef producers when beef imports have not returned to normal is nothing but absurd.”

Samantha Jamieson, chief executive at the Japan office of Meat and Livestock Australia, said the recent surge in beef imports only represents a rebound after a sharp drop in beef consumption following the BSE outbreak.

She said that if the import curb is implemented, the retail price of a 150-gram Australian sirloin steak would rise to 646 yen from the current 597 yen.

Philip Seng, president and chief executive officer of U.S. Meat Export Federation, stressed the significant role the nation’s food sector plays in the economy, making up around a quarter of the nation’s gross domestic product.

A move to hamper the sector’s growth would eventually undermine the nation’s economic strength as a whole, he said.

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