WASHINGTON – U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said Friday he will press Japan to remove the age limit on imports of U.S. beef, hardening the demand from an earlier call to raise the limit to 30 months from the current 20 months.
Johanns also reiterated that the Department of Agriculture will not allow U.S. meat producers to voluntarily conduct blanket testing on cattle for mad cow disease. He added, however, that it will allow such testing if ordered to do so in an ongoing federal court case.
His remarks underscored a new strategy of urging Japan to adopt U.S. standards for safeguarding against mad cow disease when negotiations on beef trade resume.
Asked if he wants to meet farm minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka by the end of this year to resume the talks, Johanns said, “I would love it.”
“My hope is that there will be a point where we can sit down and we can talk about this issue and start moving in that direction,” Johanns said.
U.S. standards require removal of brains, spinals cords, bones and other risk materials from cattle aged 30 months or older to safeguard against the brain-wasting disease, formally called bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which also affects humans.
But Washington has agreed on stricter requirements for beef exports to Japan, limiting shipments to meat from cattle aged up to 20 months and removing risk materials.
Under those conditions, Japan agreed in July to lift the ban on imports of U.S. beef.
“We agreed to the 20 months just simply because we felt it was necessary to get some beef back into the marketplace,” Johanns said.
“It could be older animals,” he said when asked if Washington intends to seek raising the age limit to 30 months as the next step, something it has repeatedly said it will do.
“The 30-month limit is not the international standard,” Johanns said, stressing that the issue now is about mitigating risks by removing materials at risk for mad cow disease.
“So that really is more the issue these days with (World Organization for Animal Health) standards than just picking an arbitrary 30 months or whatever,” Johanns said.
He also cautioned Japanese beef producers about losing exports to the United States, which does not put an age limit on imports, because most imported Japanese beef is from cattle aged 30 months or older.
“So if we said 30 months is going to be the limit, that would pretty well exclude Japanese beef from the marketplace here in the United States,” he said.
Washington called for abolition of the 30-month standard in a recent general meeting of the world body, which basically agreed on the risk-based approach but maintained the age limit.
The risk-based approach is a particular point of controversy between Japan and the United States because a failure by a New York exporter to remove risk material in violation of the agreed safeguard requirements led Tokyo to reinstate the import ban in January.
Part of a spinal cord was found in veal that arrived in Japan only a month after the original two-year-old import ban was lifted in December. The ban had originally been imposed after the first U.S. case of mad cow was confirmed in December 2003.
While Japan agreed in late July to resume imports after inspecting U.S. meatpackers, consumers still have safety concerns and major supermarket chains have yet to put U.S. beef products back on their shelves.
Another major source of concern is that testing is not required for U.S. beef, and the USDA is continuing to turn down requests by some U.S. producers to voluntarily conduct blanket testing on cattle for beef exports to Japan to satisfy Japanese consumers.
Japan continues to carry out blanket testing on all slaughtered cattle although the government has decided to exempt cattle aged up to 20 months from mad cow testing to pave the way for imports of U.S. beef.
“I want to emphasize . . . indicating that you’ve solved all problems by universal testing I just believe is a false promise,” Johanns said, explaining that testing could give mixed positive and negative results in “light” cases of the disease.
“So it isn’t the universal testing that will protect consumers,” he said. “What will protect consumers is the removal of the specified risk materials.”
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