The government lifted a ban on imports of U.S. and Canadian beef last week. The ban had been in force for Canadian beef since the discovery in May 2003 of a case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), popularly known as mad cow disease, in that country. The ban on U.S. beef followed in December of the same year when BSE was found in a U.S. cow born in Canada. Now, the duty to enforce preventive measures rests with U.S. and Canadian authorities. The Japanese government, for its part, must make sure that the two countries fulfill their duty.

The government’s decision is based on a final report of a BSE panel of the Cabinet Office’s Food Safety Commission. The decision states that U.S. and Canadian beef will be as safe as domestic beef if the following conditions are met: Slaughtered cattle for export to Japan are less than 21 months old, and special risk materials (SRM) such as brains and spinal cords are removed. (Prions, the infectious agents of BSE, exist in high concentration in these parts.)

What is most important about the report is that it does not scientifically ensure the safety of North American beef. The health and agriculture ministries asked only that the panel assess BSE risks if the United States and Canada exported beef under 21 months old with SRM removed. The report concludes that BSE risks are extremely small if it is assumed that export programs will strictly follow preventive measures.

Given the background of the BSE panel’s work and the government decision, it is all the more important that the government verify the safety of imported U.S. and Canadian beef. Only beef from facilities that have been certified by U.S. and Canadian authorities can be exported to Japan. There are expected to be about 50 such facilities. A team of experts has already been sent to North America to inspect meatpacking plants and will compile a report by the end of the month. The government says it will dispatch a team every month. Team members need to carry out inspections in a manner that will enhance public trust in imported beef.

Although the government has approved the resumption of imports of North American beef, Japanese consumers do not appear to be enthusiastic about buying and eating it. A poll conducted in early December showed that 75.2 percent of those surveyed would not eat U.S. beef, while 21.2 percent would like to eat it. Of those who said they would not eat U.S. beef, 62.5 percent cited worries about safety.

Behind these consumer attitudes may be the fact that Japan introduced a system of examining the meat of all slaughtered cattle after a BSE case was detected in Japan in September 2001, but that the U.S. did not adopt the same system. (Although cattle younger than 21 months were excluded from the BSE screening beginning last August, in Japan screening of all cattle continues on a voluntary basis.) Experts may term Japanese feelings as unscientific. In fact, the panel’s report says BSE may be found in one out of every 1 million heads of cattle in the U.S., or slightly lower than in Japan, and in five or six out of every 1 million heads of cattle in Canada, or the same rate as in Japan. But Japanese consumers do not live in the world of scientists. Honesty is the best way to win their trust.

In August, the U.S. Agriculture Department said inspectors had found 1,036 violations of rules pertaining to SRM removal. Exporters need to make public as much data as possible on meat processing to inform Japanese consumers about how things are handled in slaughterhouses and packing plants. At shops, information showing the origin of beef should be supplied to consumers. Under the Japanese Agricultural Standards Law, fresh meat such as steak needs to carry information about its origin. Products close to fresh meat such as a mix of minced beef and pork, seasoned beef and surface-broiled beef will be subjected to such requirement from October 2006. Under a guideline of the agriculture ministry, restaurant chains are voluntarily listing the origin of their meat. If meat shops and restaurants honestly identify North American beef as such, it should help win consumers’ trust and may lead to increased consumption. Government surveillance is called for in this matter.

The BSE committee’s report contains a finding that deserves attention to improve the slaughtering process at home. It notes that pithing, destroying the spinal cord by inserting a needle into the vertebral canal — a process carried out on 80 percent of slaughtered cattle — increases the risk of prions’ contaminating meat. The government needs to be vigilant toward ensuring the safety of domestic as well as North American beef.

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