The first shipment of U.S. beef since Japan reimposed a ban in January over fears of mad cow disease arrived Monday at Narita airport.

The importer of the approximately 5.1 tons of beef was Costco Wholesale Japan Inc., the Japanese unit of U.S. Costco Wholesale Corp., which has five outlets in Japan.

Costco officials said customers may be able to buy the beef at its outlets later this week, after the meat goes though quarantine checks.

The inspection process includes opening all boxes to make sure there are no high risk materials, including brains and spinal cords. Quarantine inspectors from both the farm and health ministries will check that the meat was processed under procedures agreed upon by Japan and the U.S., a farm ministry official said.

More shipments are expected, the official said, adding he cannot specify the volume and timing of the shipments.

Major supermarket chains Ito-Yokado Co., Aeon Co. and Daiei Co. have said, however, that they are not going to sell U.S. beef for the time being due to a lack of consumer confidence.

The shipment is the first in seven months after Japan reimposed a ban on U.S. beef in January when spinal cord was found in a U.S. veal shipment. Japan lifted the ban July 27.

The January ban came just one month after Japan lifted the previous ban in December on condition that exports come from cows under 21 months old and that parts considered to pose a mad cow disease risk are removed.

The first ban was instituted in December 2003, after a Canadian-born cow tested positive in Washington state for mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

Kinue Adachi, of the 200,000-member consumer group New Japan Women’s Association, said the body cannot accept the import resumption without full confirmation the beef is safe.

“They (the officials) can open all the boxes, but what can they check? The meat is completely frozen and they can only see lumps of ice,” she said, noting that many supermarkets are reluctant to sell U.S. beef due to customer distrust.

According to a June survey the group conducted on managers at 2,407 supermarkets across Japan, only 1.6 percent said they will sell U.S. beef, she said, adding that 29.5 percent said they will sell U.S. beef only if U.S. handlers follow the same standards as Japan.

This means carrying out tests on all slaughtered cattle, inspections of feed and removal of all risk materials — a rigorous procedure Japan introduced after it detected in 2001 its first of over two dozen cases of mad cow.

Despite reluctance by both sellers and consumers in Japan, the United States has urged Japan to ease the import conditions on the age of cows slaughtered for beef from under 21 months as at present to under 30 months, with the U.S pointing out that the beef export standard set by the OIE (World Organization for Animal Health) is under 30 months, according to media reports.

But Tokyo Medical University professor Kiyotoshi Kaneko, who used to be on the Food Safety Commission’s 12-member prion committee, tasked with assessing U.S. beef safety, said the U.S. pressure again indicates the issue is really about economy and power relationships between Japan and the U.S.

“Health is left behind somewhere,” he said, adding that even the current Japanese standard of cows under 21 months was set by government officials.

“A member was asked by the government official, ‘if it were Japanese cows kept and treated under the conditions in Japan, and if it were under 21 months, would it be safe? The member said, ‘well, it might be,’ ” he said.

“Then, only the convenient figure of under 21 months was taken out and applied to U.S. beef. No scientific grounds whatsoever,” he said.

Kaneko quit the committee in April along with five other members to protest the government’s hasty move to lift the import ban.

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