First shipment of U.S. beef arrives in Japan

The first shipment of U.S. beef to Japan in nearly two years arrived Friday following the easing of an import ban imposed after America's first case of mad cow disease, Japan's Health Ministry said, as an agricultural organization said Japanese beef exports to the U.S. would also resume shortly. About 4.6 tons of meat, including strip sirloin and chuck eye cuts as well as beef tongues, arrived at Narita International Airport just east of Tokyo, the Health Ministry said in a statement.

Japanese inspectors, in hard hats and plastic gloves, spent one and half hours screening the shipment. The inspections confirmed that the meat came from cows of the appropriate age and doesn't include suspect cuts from organs such as brains or spinal cords, said Masanori Imagawa, an official at the Health Ministry's food safety division. "We found no problems," Imagawa said.

Japan slapped a ban on imports of American beef in December 2003 after the first case of mad cow disease was reported in the U.S. herd. After two years of negotiations and a lengthy Japanese approval process, Tokyo opened its doors Monday to meat from U.S. cows under 21 months of age.

The United States responded on Monday by agreeing to partially lift its four-year-old ban on Japanese beef, also imposed over mad cow concerns. A Japanese federation of agricultural cooperatives said Friday it would shortly restart Japanese beef exports to the U.S. Friday's shipment was processed at Selma, California-based Harris Ranch Beef Co. and imported by Marudai Food Co., which said it will not sell the meat to consumers but use it for internal testing. "We have not dealt with American beef in two years," Marudai spokesman Tatsuo Sawai said. "We want to see what its taste is like, how tough it is, how tender. Our salesmen need to know this before they can start selling."

Before the ban, Japan purchased more American beef than any other country in the world, buying US$1.4 billion worth in 2003. Since then, Australia has surpassed the United States as the biggest beef exporter to Japan. The American appetite for Japanese beef, primarily expensive Kobe steaks, is more of a niche market worth an estimated US$808,000 annually.

Japan estimates that under the new guidelines, some 5 million American cows could prove eligible for export. But a survey last week by the Kyodo news agency showed some 75 percent of Japanese unwilling to eat U.S. beef because of mad cow fears, compared with 21 percent saying they would consume it.

Eating beef from cattle infected with mad cow disease, the common name for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, can cause the fatal brain disorder Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.

While the United States has had two cases of mad cow disease, Japan has reported 21 since 2001.

Although Japan has reported more cases, it tests every domestic cow that goes to the slaughterhouse, and it initially demanded that the United States do the same before resuming trade. But Japan eventually agreed to allow imports of meat from cattle younger than 21 months because no cases of mad cow disease have ever been found in cows that age.

Under the agreement, which also eased a ban on Canadian beef, North American producers must certify the age of the cows and follow strict guidelines, such as removing brains, spinal cords and other parts that are thought to transmit mad cow disease. Some ranchers are daunted by the task of breaking back into the Japanese market, reports the AP. I.L.

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