Hold that steak: Tokyo’s US beef halt sours efforts to win back Japanese palates | VailDaily.com

Hold that steak: Tokyo’s US beef halt sours efforts to win back Japanese palates

TOKYO – The first shipments of U.S. beef in two years had barely cleared customs last month when American officials were already cooking up their next project – loosening remaining restrictions on imports and winning back wary Japanese palates.Both those goals became more elusive in the wake of last week’s fresh Japanese halt to U.S. beef imports following the discovery of spine bones, material Tokyo has banned as risky for mad cow disease, in a package of American veal.Now, instead of cajoling reluctant Japanese officials into widening the categories of beef eligible for import, visiting American officials are busy serving up apologies – and getting met with an unusual stream of public criticism from their Japanese counterparts.Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe was typical on Monday in a statement ahead of a meeting with visiting U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick.”The U.S. had a duty to firmly observe the conditions for resuming imports, and it is regrettable that this duty was not observed,” Abe declared. “The U.S. needs to firmly investigate into the cause of why this duty was not observed.”Abe emphasized his point by announcing that the government ordered inspections of all stocks of U.S. beef imported over the past month, and said imports would not resume until Washington had explained the mishap to Tokyo’s satisfaction and came up with preventative steps.Prospects weren’t looking much better on the consumer front. Earlier polls suggested that most Japanese had deep reservations when the government partially lifted a two-year-old ban on American beef imports last month, and the newest flap may only strengthen that reluctance.Yoshihiko Funakoshi, 64, an executive for a Tokyo trading company, figures like many here that the ban was eased because of heavy political pressure from Washington, Japan’s top ally. If anything, he said, Tokyo should be tougher on the U.S. next time.”The way beef is exported is too sloppy – imports just resumed, and now this,” Funakoshi said as he came out of a restaurant during lunchtime on Monday. “Japan could not refuse imports so it asked the U.S. to be thorough. The Japanese government should be stricter.”On Tuesday, Japan’s Agriculture Ministry confirmed its 22nd case of mad cow disease in a domestic cow that died last week. The cow, born before Japan banned meat-and-bone meal in 2001, was not raised for food and posed no danger to Japanese beef, the ministry said.For American beef, the newest setback in Japan quickly extinguished a mood in meat industry circles that was downright festive in December, when Tokyo eased a ban imposed in late 2003 after the discovery of the first case of mad cow disease in the U.S. herd.The embargo had shut down a $1.4 billion market for U.S. beef producers, and the industry threw a series of public grill parties when the ban was eased. Every few days it seemed another American official was chewing a mouthful of rib-eye for the cameras.From the American point of view, however, the agreement that reopened the market was not perfect: only meat from cows aged 20 months or younger could be imported, even though U.S. officials say the disease has never been found in cows under 30 months old.Also excluded from the deal was material considered at risk for mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE: brains, spinal cords and certain bones, such as spinal columns.Following a recent agreement with South Korea to open its market to American beef from the older cows, U.S. officials were stepping up efforts to get Japan to reconsider its restrictions – until last Friday.Now the goal is to get Tokyo to allow any imports at all. An American delegation led by U.S. undersecretary of agriculture for farm and foreign agricultural services, J.B. Penn, was to meet with Japanese officials on Tuesday.”Probably the primary topic is going to be making sure that we comport with the agreement that we have in place,” Zoellick told reporters at the U.S. Embassy on Monday. “I don’t think it means that we have changed our view … but sometimes you have to focus on the problem of the day.”The turnaround hasn’t been welcome by the Japanese government either.Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s government pushed for the easing of the ban despite strong public reservations, and reacted over the weekend with unusually pointed criticism of the U.S., presumably as a way of insulating itself from accusations of being too easy on Washington.”The Japanese people have a very strict sense when it comes to feeling safe and secure about their food,” Koizumi said. “I hope the American side will take robust measures.”Still, Koizumi – who has also bucked public opinion to back the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq – came in for some harsh attacks himself from the opposition in parliament.”He gave precedence to Japan-U.S. relations over the Japanese people’s lives and safety,” thundered Seiji Maehara, leader of top opposition Democratic Party. “It’s outrageous.”Vail, Colorado

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