Japan apologizes for not fully inspecting U.S. beef

The Japanese government failed to inspect U.S. cattle facilities before easing a ban on American beef, Japan's farm minister acknowledged Monday, as criticism of the decision mounted. Tokyo's ban on U.S. beef imports was eased on Dec. 12, but imports were halted again this month after a beef shipment arrived in Japan with banned spinal bones in it. Japan considers such bones to be at risk for mad cow disease.

Agriculture Minister Shoichi Nakagawa acknowledged Monday that government inspections were conducted only after the ban was eased, despite a Cabinet statement that said such checks should come before a resumption of imports.

"I apologize for not fulfilling the requirement to conduct inspections prior to the resumption," Nakagawa told a parliament committee. "I will think about how to take responsibility for that," he said, adding any decision on whether he should resign will be left up to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

But Nakagawa defended his action by saying it would have been impractical to evaluate compliance by the U.S. beef processors when shipments to Japan had not even resumed.

Opposition lawmakers were unsatisfied with his response, and walked out of the Parliamentary budget committee, forcing the meeting's suspension. "Nakagawa should be dismissed or resign," said Seiji Maehara, who leads the main opposition, the Democratic Party of Japan.

"The Koizumi cabinet, which has continued to lay the blame solely on the U.S., must also bear a grave responsibility in this matter," he said. Nakagawa's admission of inspection lapses followed comments over the weekend by the head of Japan's beef safety panel, who said Tokyo should only import U.S. beef from slaughterhouses inspected by the Japanese government.

According to Kyodo News agency, Yasuhiro Yoshikawa also recommended separate processing lines for beef destined for the Japanese market due to different rules in the U.S. and Japan regarding what cattle parts are acceptable.

The Food Safety Commission late last year approved lifting the previous ban, which was imposed in 2003 following the discovery of the first case of mad cow disease in the U.S., reports the AP. I.L.

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