Despite lingering concern over the safety of U.S. beef, Japan continued final talks with Washington past midnight Tuesday on lifting the import ban, after winning a slew of concessions on inspection procedures for mad cow disease.

“I believe we will go to the next step” toward resuming imports, farm minister Shoichi Nakagawa had said earlier in the day, indicating senior officials from the two countries would reach the agreement at a teleconference in the evening. The lengthy talks, with a one-hour break, ended up continuing well into the night.

If the ban is lifted, U.S. beef shipments would reportedly resume late next month, albeit without blanket testing.

Although details of the talks were not available at press time, Nakagawa said earlier the main points would be Japan’s demand to inspect all 35 U.S. meatpackers before the resumption and to conduct port of entry checks after resumption.

The requirements previously in effect — such as the 21-month age requirement that led to the import ban being briefly lifted in December before a tainted U.S. veal shipment reactivated it — would also stick.

“We will discuss what Japan should do and what we want the U.S. to do, including unannounced checks at U.S. facilities, and ask for U.S. approval,” Nakagawa said.

Although he did not give specific dates, Japan will reportedly begin inspecting the meatpackers next week.

Despite a campaign to promote the safety of U.S. beef, including town meetings held throughout Japan, Japanese consumers remain doubtful about eating beef from a country that refuses to test all of its cattle for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, as Japan does.

But Nakagawa remained guardedly optimistic.

“We, the ministries of agriculture and health, have made as many careful explanations as possible,” he said. “I realize there are quite a few voices of concern, but when both the U.S. and Japanese (checking) structures are established, and after the talks, when the earlier mentioned procedures are taken,” U.S. imports will likely be approved if there are no problems, he said.

After the last bilateral beef talks in May, Japan held 10 public hearings for consumers and the food industry nationwide. But consumers remained unconvinced.

Half of the government’s vaunted prion panel recently resigned en masse instead of compromising on the safety issue, reportedly in protest of the political pressure.

Separately Tuesday, health minister Jiro Kawasaki said Japanese port of entry checks will include visual inspections of each container of U.S. beef.

After Japan experienced its first mad cow outbreak in 2001, Japanese beef handlers began voluntarily conducting checks on all beef cattle, and are required to do so with beef from cows over 21 months old. Thorough inspections of feed, removal of all risk materials, and traceability are also part of the official beef-handling regimen.

While the requirements seem daunting, Japan continues to find infected cows on a fairly regular basis, and consumers fear the huge push to resume U.S. imports is flawed.

At the hearings, consumers told the government they would want U.S. meatpackers to conduct “the same level of checks as in Japan” before imports are resumed.

Concerns have also been raised about the political overtones of the deal, which is being viewed as a “gift” from Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to U.S. President George W. Bush, who will meet with Koizumi later this month in Washington before Koizumi steps down in September as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Nakagawa denied this, saying the timing of the teleconference had nothing to do with the Bush-Koizumi summit.

The first time Tokyo shut its market to U.S. beef was in December 2003, after a Canadian-born cow tested positive in the U.S. for mad cow disease.

Tokyo partially lifted the ban last December on condition that beef exported to Japan come from cows under 21 months old and that parts considered at risk — including brains and spinal cords — were removed.

But Japan slammed its doors shut to U.S. beef a second time in January after customs inspectors at Narita airport found spinal cords in a U.S. veal shipment. Beef imports from other countries surged after the ban, putting 90 percent of the market into the hands of Australia and New Zealand.

While the World Organization for Animal Health certified Australian and New Zealand beef to be free from mad cow, the Japanese government is contemplating stricter checks for beef from other countries, including Mexico and China.

Bill Withers, the Australian Embassy’s minister counselor of agriculture, said he welcomes the lifting of the ban on U.S. beef because it is good for the recovery of overall beef consumption in Japan.

“Japanese beef consumption fell 10 percent with the September 2001 BSE outbreak in Japan, and a further 15 percent with that of U.S. beef in December 2003, a total of 25 percent. But Japanese consumer confidence on beef, whether it is for U.S. or Australian beef, is good for the global beef industry,” he said, adding that with its positive reputation for safety, he believes Australian beef will be able to maintain most of its market share, even after U.S. beef returns.

John Hundleby, the Japan representative of Meat & Wool New Zealand, an NPO that promotes New Zealand beef and lamb, said he believes the impact of resuming U.S. beef imports will not be so large for New Zealand beef, which is grass-fed and lean.

“New Zealand beef, which is produced naturally from cattle raised year-round outdoors and which eat only grass, is ideally placed to respond to the strong emphasis in the Japanese market on ‘safety’ and ‘healthiness,’ ” Hundleby said.

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