Japan agrees to ease ban on U.S. and Canadian beef, prompted by 2003 mad cow scare
TOKYO – Japan agreed Monday to ease the country’s ban on U.S. and Canadian beef imports, resolving a bitter trans-Pacific trade dispute two years after the first case of mad cow disease was discovered in the U.S. herd.The easing of the ban would allow meat from cows under 21 months old back into the Japanese market, which before the ban had been the most lucrative overseas market for American beef, buying $1.7 billion worth in 2003. It was not immediately clear when U.S. meat would again appear in Japanese supermarkets and restaurants.Japan will dispatch inspection teams to review North American exporting facilities starting Tuesday, the Heath Ministry said.”The issue of food safety is a fundamental part of everyday life, and we will do our best to ensure it.” said Japan’s vice agricultural minister, Mitsuhiro Miyakoshi.U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said he believed U.S. beef could arrive in Japan within 10 days. He said Monday’s decision was “an important step in terms of normalizing beef trade based on scientific standards.”The decision, formally adopted Monday by Japan’s agriculture and health ministries, follows a recommendation from the country’s Food Safety Commission last week to resume limited imports.Surveys show Japanese are as leery as ever of U.S. beef and unwilling to buy it, while American ranchers say a series of new safety requirements imposed by Tokyo could keep many producers from tapping the market anyway.Japan will halt imports from individual producers found violating the rules, Miyakoshi said. If abuses are widespread, Japan will re-evaluate implementing another sweeping ban.The new rules would allow only meat from cows younger than 21 months, because no cases of mad cow disease have been found in cows that age. Besides requiring U.S. producers to certify the cow’s age, the new rules also demand that U.S. inspectors follow strict guidelines, such as removing dangerous cow material such as brains and spinal cords.While the United States has had two cases of mad cow disease, Japan has reported 21 since its first in 2001.Japan’s latest livestock case was confirmed over the weekend, when Japan’s agriculture ministry determined that a cow that died last week also had the sickness, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, Kyodo News agency reported.A survey last week by Kyodo showed some 75 percent of Japanese are unwilling to eat U.S. beef because of mad cow fears, compared to 21 percent who said they would consume it. Most worry about the reliability of U.S. inspection measures.Eating beef from cattle infected with mad cow disease can cause a fatal brain disorder in humans, although there have been no human cases traced directly to North American cattle.Johanns said an announcement would come Monday on whether the U.S. will lift its own ban on Japanese beef. The Agriculture Department has been working since August on a rule that would lift the ban, which the U.S. imposes on countries with cases of mad cow disease. The U.S. lifted a ban on Canadian beef earlier this year.American ranchers, meanwhile, are daunted by the extra expense of breaking back into the Japanese market.Steve Pilcher, executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, said the move toward resumption of beef trade was “obviously a significant day for all cattle producers and all involved in the livestock industry.”Selling beef to Japan will generally mean keeping a paper trail from the ranch to the feedlot to the slaughterhouse, to verify cattle are killed at 20 months of age or younger. But birth records alone will not do, and in many cases, producers will need third-party verification of their documents and herds for corroboration, according to beef experts at Iowa State University.Although Japan has reported more cases of mad cow disease than the United States, the difference is that Japan tests every domestic cow that goes to the slaughter house, and it initially demanded that the United States do the same before resuming trade.U.S. authorities balked at the cost of testing the huge American herd and argued that it was not scientifically necessary. Japan estimates that under the eased guidelines, some 5 million American cows could be proven eligible for export.After protracted negotiations, both sides finally settled on allowing cows younger than 21 months.The 2003 discovery of mad cow in the United States, the first of two, prompted dozens of countries to ban U.S. beef; at least 70 countries have since lifted their bans, at least partially, according to the chief economist of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.—Associated Press writers Libby Quaid in Washington and Becky Bohrer in Billings, Mont. contributed to this report.