U.S. beef age limit to be eased this year

Kyodo News

The government will move forward on easing the age limit on U.S. beef imports, officials said after two days of bilateral working-level talks in Tokyo.

Japan found no serious problems in the U.S. responses to its remaining questions, the officials said, suggesting the government will accept meat from cattle aged 30 months or younger by the end of the year. The current rule limits the age at 20 months or younger over fears of mad cow disease.

The decision, however, requires approval by the Food Safety Commission, an independent panel of scientists that assesses possible risks. The government is planning to consult with the panel, possibly this month, the officials said.

Japan has already stopped opening all packages of U.S. beef imports after the government found no major offenses when it sent inspectors to beef processing facilities in the United States in May. The working-level talks got started the next month.

Given that all cows in Japan aged 20 months or older must be tested for mad cow disease, the government may find it necessary to reassure the public on why it is softening the rule for U.S. beef.

At the talks that ended Friday, a follow-on to the talks that started in June, representatives mainly discussed U.S. beef safety in reference to scientific data, the officials said. The talks will continue.

Japan asked the U.S. to submit documents concerning a range of issues, including regulations on the use of meat-and-bone meal, which is believed to be a source of mad cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, according to the officials.

They quoted U.S. representatives as saying 98 percent or more of animal feed makers in the U.S. no longer use meat-and-bone meal.

This “proved BSE risk in the United States has been decreasing,” an official from the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry said after the meeting.

The government will now assess the data presented by the U.S. representatives, and the two sides will jointly release a report on the measures taken by Washington.

The government will hold public hearings nationwide before calling for advice from the food safety panel, which is expected to take a few months to work out its conclusions.

Washington has been asking Tokyo to ease the import conditions since the World Organization for Animal Health gave the green light in May for the U.S. to export beef regardless of the age of the cattle.

Japan banned U.S. beef imports after the first U.S. case of mad cow disease was discovered in December 2003.

The government lifted the ban in December 2005 under strict conditions, including the age limit. The ban was reinstated the following month after a veal shipment was found to contain part of a backbone, a risk material banned under the bilateral beef agreement.

The ban was again lifted in July 2006.