Japan agrees to ease ban on U.S. and Canadian beef

Japan agreed Monday to ease its ban on imports of U.S. and Canadian beef, resolving a bitter trans-Pacific trade dispute two years after the first case of mad cow disease was discovered in the U.S. The easing of the ban allows meat from North American cows under 21 months back into Japan's market, which before the prohibition had been the biggest overseas market for American beef, totaling US$1.4 billion in 2003.

It was not immediately clear when U.S. meat would reappear in Japanese supermarkets and restaurants, but U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said it could arrive within the next 10 days. "It is great news for American producers," Johanns said. "It is an important step in terms of normalizing beef trade." While resuming beef trade could be a boon to U.S. producers, there still are lingering worries on both sides of the Pacific.

Surveys show Japanese are as leery as ever of U.S. beef, while American ranchers say the new safety requirements imposed by Tokyo could keep many producers from tapping the reopened market. In addition to requiring U.S. producers to certify the cow's age, because no cases of mad cow disease have been found in cows younger than 21 months, the rules also demand that U.S. inspectors follow strict guidelines, such as ensuring that the cows' brains and spinal cords, where the disease is thought to be concentrated, have been removed.

"The issue of food safety is a fundamental part of everyday life, and we will do our best to ensure it," Vice Agriculture Minister Mitsuhiro Miyakoshi said, adding that Japan will halt imports from individual producers found violating the rules.

Japan will dispatch inspection teams to review North American exporting facilities starting Tuesday, the Heath Ministry said. Johanns said the U.S. would announce later Monday whether it 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.

While the United States has had two cases of mad cow disease, Japan has reported 21 since 2001. But a survey last week by Kyodo News agency showed some 75 percent of Japanese are unwilling to eat U.S. beef because of mad cow fears, compared to 21.2 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 the fatal brain disorder Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. "We still don't know for sure whether U.S. beef is safe or not," office worker Nagasawa Haruo, 37, said after lunching on pork and rice in downtown Tokyo. "My wife says she will not buy beef at grocery stores."

While there have been no human cases traced to beef from U.S. animals, Japan has reported one death. The Health Ministry, however, believes that the man, who died in December 2004, contracted the disease during a one-month stay in Britain in 1989.

Some American ranchers are daunted by the extra expense of breaking back into Japan's market.

Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers' Association, said the move was welcomed, but that ranchers would have preferred trade without age restrictions. "We're very pleased to have this first step taken. But we see it as just that, a first step," he said.

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, according to beef experts at Iowa State University.

Although Japan has reported more cases of mad cow disease than the United States, it tests every domestic cow that goes to the slaughterhouse, and it initially demanded that the United States do the same before resuming trade. U.S. authorities balked at the cost and argued that it was not scientifically necessary. After protracted negotiations, the two sides finally settled on allowing cows younger than 21 months.

"This has been a long process and I believe that Japanese consumers can be sure that every step has been taken to ensure that their health and safety would be protected," U.S. Ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer said. Japanese can look forward to lower beef prices, which spiked after U.S. beef was barred from the country. That factor resonated with 65-year-old, reports the AP. I.L.

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