Less than six weeks after lifting a two-year ban on U.S. beef imports, the Japanese government was forced to impose it again last week. The action followed the discovery of prohibited material in a shipment from a New York meatpacker in violation of safety rules aimed at preventing the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease.

It appears that the U.S. government failed to properly oversee the safety regime for exporting beef to Japan, the biggest overseas market for U.S. beef. For its part, the Japanese government was no doubt mindful of its assurance to Japanese consumers that exporters on the U.S. side would fulfill their duty — the precondition for lifting the ban in the first place.

Japan lifted the ban on U.S. and Canadian beef imports on Dec. 12 following a final report by the BSE panel of the Cabinet Office’s Food Safety Commission. The report said the difference in the risk of human BSE infection between North American beef and domestic beef will be extremely small if two conditions are met: Cattle slaughtered for beef export to Japan are less than 21 months old and special-risk materials (SRM) such as brains and spinal cords, in which prions, the infectious agents of BSE, are more likely to exist, are removed.

The crux of the report was that Japan could resume imports of North American beef if the two conditions were met. Japan imported about 1,500 tons of U.S. beef after the ban was lifted.

On Jan. 20, a quarantine officer at Narita airport opened and checked one of 41 boxes containing 390 kg of veal shipped from the meatpacker in Brooklyn, New York, and found spinal-column bone in the meat. This prompted inspection of all of the boxes. Similar bone parts were found in two other boxes. It seems to have been a matter of pure luck that the first box containing the risky parts was picked by the quarantine officer, since only a fraction of the boxes containing beef were being checked after reaching Narita.

Circumstances surrounding the Brooklyn meatpacker point to an “unacceptable failure” on the United States’ part, to borrow a phrase from U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns. A U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector stationed at the facility authorized export of the meat in question. Mr. Johanns indicated that the inspector was not aware of the requirements that brains, spinal cords and other SRM be removed from shipments to Japan. Expressing “sincere regret,” the meatpacker said the company misinterpreted export requirements.

The burden on U.S. meatpackers to follow two different procedures in their plants — one for shipments within the U.S. and another for export to Japan — may have contributed to the latest incident. For beef consumption in the U.S., removal of SRM is mandatory only if the animals are older than 30 months. Still, the existence of the two procedures should not be used as an excuse for the foulup in Brooklyn in view of the USDA announcement in August that inspectors had found 1,036 violations of rules pertaining to SRM removal.

When Japan’s ban was lifted, the U.S. stated that no problems existed with its system of safety checks at domestic meat facilities. The fact that the mistake last week occurred in the presence of a U.S. inspector shows that proper instruction did not reach some officials on the job as well as some meat industry people. This suggests a serious problem. The U.S. government needs to find out how and why such a communications breakdown occurred and make public its findings.

The Brooklyn plant was one of 39 U.S. meatpacking plants authorized to export beef to Japan. Six others in Canada are also authorized. After the mistake became known, the U.S. government removed the Brooklyn plant from the list of authorized exporters. The latest incident has deepened lingering suspicion held by Japanese consumers toward U.S. beef, although the U.S. beef industry may say that Japanese sensitivities are unscientific. The Japanese government could have banned imports only from the meatpacking plant that erred. Instead, it chose to ban all beef imports from the U.S. This points to the government’s awareness of Japanese consumers’ perception that the government lifted the ban in consideration of pressure from the U.S. The government may also be concerned that a partial ban at this point would have only enraged consumers.

If large quantities of U.S. beef imports resume in the future, count on Japanese consumers questioning the reliability of sampling tests of shipments that have arrived in Japan. The additional steps that the U.S. government is expected to take to ensure the safety of beef destined for Japan will have to be strong and transparent enough to regain their trust. The Japanese government also needs to improve its safety verification methods at certified meatpacking plants.

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