U.S. agriculture secretary urges Asian nations to open markets to beef

The U.S. agriculture secretary on Thursday urged Asian nations still banning U.S. beef because of fears of mad cow disease to follow Japan's example and open their markets. Mike Johanns, speaking to a U.S. farm group on the sidelines of the World Trade Organization talks, said U.S. beef is "within days, if not as we speak, ready to be shipped into Japan."

"We are not going to relent in our efforts to open other markets for our beef," he said. "Now really is the time for South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, Singapore, China and others to follow the Japanese example and resume normal trading relations."

On Monday, Japan eased its ban on U.S. beef after two years of negotiations and a lengthy approval process. The ban dated from December 2003, when a U.S. cow tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as mad cow disease.

"I think Japan was such a major step," Johanns said. "Countries in this part of the world look at that as very positive because (Japan's) process was so painstaking."

Johanns said the United States applauds "Japan's acceptance of a science-based system for trading beef ... I believe Japanese consumers will quickly return to our high-quality U.S. beef, when given that opportunity and that choice."

He said he has met privately with farm ministers from other Asian nations during this week's WTO meeting to press them to open their markets. Those meetings have gone well, but he said it was too early to talk about dates the markets might be opened.

Johanns asked his South Korean counterpart, Park Hong-soo, on Wednesday to quickly resume imports of U.S. beef. Park reportedly replied that experts were currently reviewing the safety of American beef.

Scientists believe mad cow disease is spread when farmers feed cattle with recycled meat and bones from infected animals. It is thought to cause the fatal human variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, reports the AP. I.L.

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