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The government has lifted its ban on imports of U.S. beef, but suspicions about the safety of American beef still linger in Japan. This sentiment is epitomized by a statement by health minister Jiro Kawasaki. He said that if risk materials — parts of the cow where prions, the infectious agents of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease, can exist — are found again in imported U.S. beef, all beef shipments from the United States would be halted and he would probably have to resign.

U.S. beef was first banned in December 2003 after a Canadian-born cow in Washington state tested positive for BSE. The ban was lifted in December 2005, but reinstated the following month after spinal material, a risk part, was discovered in a shipment of U.S. veal. The latest Japan-U.S. agreement includes the following conditions: cattle slaughtered for beef export to Japan must be less than 21 months old, BSE-risk parts such as brains and spinal cords must be removed and the beef must come from authorized meat-processing plants. The government says it will inspect all beef imports “for the time being.”

Given the public’s suspicions, it is important to give consumers accurate information on the origin of beef. At present, all beef products do not carry such information. Regulations vary in accordance to processing, such as whether the beef has been heated or frozen, and whether it is mixed with other meats or vegetables. The government should make it mandatory that all beef products indicate country of origin.

One way to gain the confidence of Japanese consumers would be to limit U.S. beef imports to cows raised only on grass and grain at authorized ranches, and to sell it attached with relevant information on the cows, including their age and origin.

The government also must do its utmost to ensure the safety of domestic beef. It must heed the government BSE panel’s finding in its December 2005 report that pithing, a procedure in which the spinal cord is destroyed by inserting a needle into the vertebral canal, is carried out on 80 percent of slaughtered cattle and increases the risk of prion contamination of meat.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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