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Japan’s 15-month-old import ban on U.S. beef has become a major diplomatic issue between Tokyo and Washington, and U.S. lawmakers are increasing pressure on Japan to lift the ban as soon as possible.

Although the two nations agreed in October to partially reopen the market to U.S. beef imports as early as this spring, the timing has not been decided.

This has prompted U.S. lawmakers to threaten retaliatory action.

The issue will be taken up when U.S. Secre tary of State Condoleezza Rice, who arrived in Tokyo on Friday for her first trip to Japan since assuming her post in January, meets her counterpart, Nobutaka Machimura, on Saturday.

The Japan Times this week interviewed two experts — Shinichi Fukuoka of Aoyama Gakuin University and Kazutaka Kato of Japan Food Service Association. Both men have been following the U.S. beef ban. They have a lot to say about Japan’s food safety policy and the resumption of U.S. beef imports.

Keep beef ban until U.S. improves safety: professor

Japan should keep the import ban on U.S. beef unless the United States adopts stricter measures to ensure all beef is free of mad cow disease, according to Shinichi Fukuoka, professor of molecular biology at Aoyama Gakuin University.

“Japan has been urging the U.S. to take stricter steps, but it has not come up with effective measures,” Fukuoka claimed.

Japan tests all slaughtered cattle — it tested 1.23 million in fiscal 2003 — and removes so-called specific risk materials, including brains, and bans the use of meat-and-bone meal for feed. It has also created a traceability system that can track cows from birth to the pastures where they were raised.

The U.S., on the other hand, conducts testing on less than 1 percent of some 35 million slaughtered cattle a year but only removes the SRMs for cattle older than 30 months. It also allows meat-and-bone meal to be fed to pigs and chickens, although it could be mistakenly eaten by cows, Fukuoka said. The U.S. also lacks a traceability system, making it difficult to know a cow’s exact age, he added.

“Measures in the U.S. to deal with mad cow disease are very insufficient,” he said, adding that Japan should not yield to diplomatic pressure from Washington.

Tokyo agreed in October to partially lift the ban on U.S. beef for cattle aged 20 months and under, but the two sides are still at odds over how to verify the age of cattle.

Fukuoka, author of “Mo Ushi wa Anzenka” (“Are Cows Safe Now?”), argues that the U.S. verification method, which gauges physiological maturity from the quality of beef, has a margin of error of about a few months, a difference he said could be fatal.

Fukuoka also said Tokyo should maintain blanket testing of slaughtered cattle until mad cow’s sources and infection routes become clear.

Last July, Japan and the U.S. agreed that blanket testing has technical limitations in detecting the brain-wasting disease, known formally as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, in young animals because the proteins associated with it are not believed to accumulate in young cows.

But Fukuoka admitted there are limits to all-cattle testing and said that is why the government is making sure SRMs are removed from all slaughtered cattle as a fail-safe measure.

“Japan has the strictest standard in the world in terms of preventive measures,” he claimed. “At this point, there is no reasonable excuse to ease blanket testing.”

Fukuoka agreed that Japanese consumers, not the government, should be the ones who choose whether to buy U.S. beef, which is often priced lower than domestic beef.

But consumers would have no way of knowing whether American beef was being used in school lunches or at restaurants, where there is no obligation to tag the origins of the ingredients in their dishes.

“Consumers may not have the opportunity to choose one way or the other,” he said.

Let consumers decide for themselves: eatery lobbyist

Japan should reopen its market for U.S. beef and let consumers decide for themselves whether to buy American beef, said Kazutaka Kato, executive director of Japan Food Service Association.

“Consumers should have the right to choose between U.S. beef and beef from other nations,” he said, adding that those who want to eat American beef are now deprived of that opportunity.

Kato noted Japan’s testing for mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is too strict compared with international standards, including those of Europe and the United States.

The government decided to implement blanket testing in October 2001 based on political decision to prevent the public from panicking after the first case of mad cow disease was found in Japan the previous month, he said.

While Japan tests all slaughtered cattle for the brain-wasting disease, the European Union and the United States conduct BSE testing on cattle aged 30 months and older.

A government panel is currently discussing whether to ease the testing in Japan by excluding cattle 20 months and younger, which would pave the way for the resumption of U.S. beef imports.

Kato said that all-cattle testing is not almighty, adding the result of the BSE testing varies with the sensitivity of the drugs used for the test.

“But people feel relieved just by the fact that the testing is carried out,” he said.

European countries and other nations are removing specific risk materials, or SRMs, including cow brains and spinal cords. They see this as the best way to prevent BSE-infected cattle from entering the market, he said.

On the other hand, Japanese consumers tend to think the risk should be reduced to zero, which is “impossible,” Kato said. “Conditions to resume trade should not be judged based on public emotion.”

Japan Food Service Association is a group of restaurant operators, including Yoshinoya D&C Co., Japan’s biggest “gyudon” beef-on-rice chain. The association and other food industry groups gathered some 1 million signatures last month, urging the government to lift the ban on U.S. beef in full at the earliest date.

Kato also criticized the independent Food Safety Commission for the slow pace of its discussions and the government’s lack of leadership to speed it up. Senior government officials have argued that they cannot issue orders to or pressure the commission.

The commission should focus its discussions on the scale of the risk, he said.

Estimates made by European research facilities show that 99.95 percent of consumers do not run the risk of contracting BSE when the testing is conducted on cattle 30 months and older, he said.

Kato urged government leaders to take the initiative in easing blanket testing as well as explaining to the public that the testing was adopted based on political considerations, instead of scientific.

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