Japan and the United States have reached a general agreement on the conditions to resume the importing of American beef to Japan. Beef imports have been suspended since the Japanese government imposed a ban on Jan. 20 after discovering that a U.S. meatpacker had violated safety rules. If everything goes smoothly, the Japanese government is likely to make a decision on the import resumption by the end of June and U.S. beef may start arriving in Japan in July.

Japan was once the most lucrative market for U.S. beef. In 2003, Japanese consumed 150 billion yen worth of American beef. But there is no guarantee that if the ban is lifted Japanese consumers, who have witnessed the fiasco that led to the second import ban in January, will become enthusiastic about American beef again.

In December 2003, Japan shut its market to U.S. beef after a Canada-born cow in the U.S. tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), more commonly known as mad cow disease. The import ban was lifted on Dec. 12, 2005, following a final report by the BSE panel of the Cabinet Office’s Food Safety Commission. For importing to resume, the panel set two conditions: cattle slaughtered for beef export to Japan had to be less than 21 months old; and BSE-risk parts of the cow (in which prions, the infectious agents of BSE are likely to exist), such as brains and spinal cords, had to be removed.

Yet less than six weeks after the import ban had been lifted, the Japanese government was forced to re-impose it. The government took immediate action when spinal-column bone, a prohibited cow part, was discovered at Narita airport. The veal had been shipped from a meatpacker in Brooklyn, New York.

The latest agreement between the Japanese and the U.S. governments has come after officials from both sides met at a three-day meeting in Tokyo last week. U.S. officials submitted a report on checks of compliance at 35 meat processing plants that are allowed to export to Japan. It explained that all these facilities are equipped with the manual for removing the BSE-risk parts and that workers there have been adequately educated on the basis of the manual. Although minor clerical and procedural problems are present at some facilities, Japanese officials concluded that the audit addressed most of Japan’s concerns for quality control and accepted the report. The U.S. also agreed to let Japanese officials inspect the 35 facilities before the importing of U.S. beef is resumed and to let Japanese inspectors join U.S. inspections of the facilities that take place without prior notice, once importing has resumed.

Since this latest Japan-U.S. agreement has come just before a June scheduled summit between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and U.S. President George W. Bush, it is possible that Japanese consumers regard the agreement as politically motivated, the resumption of importing American beef simply as a political gift to aid Mr. Bush. Dissatisfaction over the prolonged Japanese ban on U.S. beef is mounting in the U.S. meat industry. Both the U.S. administration and Congress are feeling the industry’s pressure, something that needs to be relieved before the U.S. mid-term elections in November.

Before working out full details with the U.S. concerning the inspections and other related matters, the Japanese government will take three weeks to explain the latest agreement to to the public at about 10 locations across the nation.

In April, meetings held at 10 locations revealed that the public still express doubts about the safety of American beef. Their concern seems reasonable in light of the discovery of the BSE-risk parts at Narita airport but also because recent incidents in Hong Kong and Taiwan have shown other U.S. violations of export rules. The U.S. had explained that the Narita incident was a unique case and there was no possibility of it recurring. Yet in March and April, despite the fact that the removal of bone is a condition for export to Hong Kong and Taiwan, bone parts were found in imported American beef. The violation was committed by a major U.S. meat firm, which in the past has exported beef to Japan. Such incidents cast doubt over the ability of U.S. meat-processing plants to live up to the export program for Japan.

After the discovery of BSE in Japan, the Japanese government set up a legal framework under which the background of a BSE-infected cow can be traced — where it was born and raised and from which cow it was born. If a similar setup was introduced in the U.S., it would contribute to restoring Japanese consumer confidence in U.S. beef. At present, a cow in the U.S. can be traced back only as far as the meat processing plant. Even if an unhealthy cow is found, it is difficult to determine where the cows that were raised together with it are, and whether they have already been slaughtered.

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