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Japan agreed last week to lift its ban on imports of American beef after the United States accepted Tokyo’s demand for stricter safety checks. Imports will resume only after Japanese experts have checked the 35 U.S. meatpackers authorized to process beef for export to Japan. Even after imports resume, Japanese officials will be allowed to join their U.S. counterparts in surprise inspections of meatpackers. American beef is expected to be on Japanese shelves by late July.

Despite stricter safety measures written into the agreement, it is hard not to get the impression that the decision to resume imports was politically motivated inasmuch as it came just ahead of this week’s summit in the U.S. between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and President George W. Bush.

Japan first imposed an import ban in December 2003 after a Canadian-born cow in the U.S. tested positive for mad cow disease. The ban was lifted Dec. 12, 2005, on condition that beef exported to Japan was less than 21 months old and that so-called risky parts such as spinal cords, brains and surrounding body parts were removed. On Jan. 20, the ban was re-imposed after pieces of spinal column were found in a U.S. veal shipment.

The application of stricter checks will probably not ease Japanese consumer concerns about the safety of U.S. beef. During public hearings held after bilateral talks in May, many people expressed doubts about the quality of U.S. supervision over beef production. Some restaurant chains and supermarkets are said to be cautious about using or selling U.S. beef.

Some Americans may view Japanese worries as unscientific. But following a U.S. opinion that cows as old as 30 months should be considered safe, Japanese may suspect that U.S. meatpackers might not follow the 21-month rule faithfully.

Unless the perception of the Japanese consumer changes, there will not be a strong rise in demand for U.S. beef. The first step should be full disclosure of relevant information, including cattle-raising and meatpacking conditions in the U.S. as well as the reality of inspections and problems involving U.S. beef exported to other countries.

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