Bush Administration Presses Japan to Readmit U.S. Beef

WASHINGTON, DC, April 5, 2004 (ENS) - The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is anxious to begin exporting beef Japan once again, and is pressuring the Japanese government to lift the ban on U.S. beef imports that was imposed last December. The ban was imposed by Japan and some 40 other countries when one Washington state cow was found to have the fatal brain wasting disease known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease.

The Bush administration has asked the Japanese government to participate in a technical consultation about its beef quality standards, but if that does not persuade the Japanese to let U.S. beef in again, the U.S. officials are threatening a World Trade Organization review.

In a letter to Japanese Agriculture Minister Yoshiyuki Kamei on March 29, the Bush administration proposed a U.S./Japan technical consultation on BSE with the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), the international standard setting body for animal diseases.

The Japanese require all cattle to be tested for the disease before they can become food for humans, and the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture has required that the United States institute universal testing before the ban can be lifted.


Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman with Japan's Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Yoshiyuki Kamei at an introductory meeting held July 10, 2003. (Photo courtesy )
Japan also insists on the removal of specific risk materials such as brain and spinal cord tissue as conditions for the re-entry of U.S. beef products into the Japanese market, but the United States is not willing to test all the carcasses exported to Japan and says U.S. meatpacking practices now remove the specified risk materials.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick cited findings by an international scientific panel which said that there is no need for 100 percent testing. The United States wants the OIE consultation "to establish science-based standards that will allow resumption of trade in beef and beef products," they said.

"The most appropriate path at this point is for the scientific experts at the OIE to consult and agree upon measures that are based on science," Veneman and Zoellick said. "We urge the government of Japan to agree to an OIE consultation and to assure that its measures are consistent with its international commitments as a member of the World Trade Organization."

"We have assurances," wrote Veneman and Zoellick, "that the OIE would commit to an aggressive timetable to review a commonly accepted definition of BSE and related testing methodologies as well as a common definition of specified risk materials."

"We have submitted our system and measures to scrutiny by international experts and see no reason why Japan should be reluctant to do likewise," the U.S. officials wrote.

"We are disappointed that the Japanese response to our proposal was conveyed through the press instead of engaging in constructive dialogue about the merits of the proposal," wrote Veneman and Zoellick.

"We urge the government of Japan to agree to an OIE consultation and to assure that its measures are consistent with its international commitments as a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO)."

At a news conference Friday, Agriculture Minister Kamei called the U.S. statement "regrettable."

Japan has had its own troubles with mad cow disease. The first detection of BSE in Japan occurred in September of 2001, and to date 11 cases in total have been confirmed, including one case in March 2004.


U.S. Agriculture Department technicians examine a beef carcass. (Photo courtesy USDA)
Negative reactions by Japanese consumers to the confirmation of BSE in Japanís cattle herd had a devastating effect on overall demand and on beef imports.

Japan is the largest overseas market for U.S. beef. Japan imported a record 720,000 metric tons of beef in 2000, but weak consumer demand dropped beef imports to 675,000 tons in 2001.

A third of all the beef consumed in Japan once came from the United States. Japan also banned beef from Canada after it was confirmed that the diseased U.S. cow was brought into the United States from Canada.

Meanwhile, U.S. cattle ranchers are working towards finding a unified approach to the multiple facets of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in North America. A BSE summit to be held April 26-27 in Fort Worth, Texas will address the issue.

The conference is being coordinated on behalf of the Cattlemenís Beef Board and state beef councils by the National Cattlemenís Beef Association (NCBA). Cattle ranchers and meatpackers from Canada and Mexico have been invited, as well as the U.S. federal agencies working on the BSE issue. Invitations will be extended to representatives from every industry segment touched by the BSE situation, including the rendering, feed and dairy industries.

"Much in our industry has changed since December 23, and we as an industry need to identify what we can do to further assure our customers about the safety of the U.S. beef supply," said J.O. Reagan, Ph.D., NCBA vice president of research and knowledge management. As part of this effort, the Beef Industry Food Safety Council will reactivate its BSE Working Group, which will take a longer term look at the devastating disease.

In March the USDA announced plans to test more than 221,000 animals over a 12 to 18 month period beginning in June. Included would be 201,000 animals considered to be at high risk of BSE because they show signs of nervous system disorders such as twitching.

Random tests also will be conducted on about 20,000 older animals sent to slaughter even though they appear healthy. Those tests are aimed at sampling cattle old enough to have eaten feed produced before 1997, when the Food and Drug Administration banned the use of cattle tissue in feed for other cattle.

Mad cow disease spreads from one animal to another by consumption of feed, such as blood or meat meal, that has been contaminated by abnormal proteins from the nervous system tissue of an infected animal.

The human form of the disease can be transmitted if a human being eats BSE infected meat, or possibly through blood transfusions.