Japan Lifts U.S. Beef Import Ban Imposed Against Mad Cow Disease

WASHINGTON, DC, July 28, 2006 (ENS) - The government of Japan announced Thursday that it will resume imports of U.S. beef from cattle 20 months and younger. The decision comes after trade of U.S. beef with Japan was suspended in December 2003 following the discovery of the first case of mad cow disease in the United States.

A partial beef trade was resumed, and then abruptly suspended in January 2006, after the discovery of one shipment of U.S. product that did not meet the Japanese specifications.

A Japanese government panel including officials of the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, and the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry held a meeting to approve the resumption of imports, which were halted on January 20.

But Japanese consumers may have to wait until the middle of August to see U.S. beef in markets as a senior official of the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry told the "Daily Yomiuri" that "demand for U.S. beef remains low."


Japanese shoppers may not welcome U.S. beef back onto supermarket shelves. (Photo by K.E. Belk courtesy CSU)
Japanese officials conducted inspections at 35 meat processing plants in the United States in June and July to determine the level of exclusion of specific risk materials from cattle that could carry the infectious proteins, or prions, by which mad cow disease is transmitted to other animals or to humans.

The risk materials include the skull, brain, and nervous system tissue, eyes, tonsils, spinal cord and the vertebral column of cattle 20 months of age and older.

Formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, BSE, the disease spreads from one animal to another by consumption of feed that has been contaminated by prions. They are most likely to be found in the specified risk materials.

The age of the animals is important because BSE takes time to incubate, so the youngest animals are the safest to eat.

Humans can contract the fatal brain wasting illness known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD) by consuming the meat of infected cattle.

During the inspections, officials found that one plant that has yet to establish operation manuals in line with safety requirements. It is the only site from which imports will not be permitted.


U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns says he is confident that U.S. beef products are safe. (Photo courtesy Office of the Secretary)
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said he is pleased with the Japanese decision to resume imports of U.S. beef from cattle 20 months of age and younger.

"This has been a long process as we've confirmed that our system is in full compliance with Japan's import requirements and provided Japan with clear, scientific data confirming that American beef is extremely safe. It is gratifying to know that these efforts paid off," Johanns said Thursday.

"It is unfortunate that the trade resumption launched last December was cut short in January of this year," Johanns said. "Nations need reasonable methods of addressing the inadvertent shipment of products that don't meet an importing country's specifications, without disrupting an entire trading relationship."

"The U.S. has such methods of addressing noncompliant shipments from Japan, as well as our other trading partners, and I am hopeful that going forward Japan will take a similar approach," the secretary said.

The American Meat Institute called the Japanese decision "good news" but pointed out that most of the U.S. beef supply will not be eligible for export to Japan, since only a small percentage of cattle can be identified as 20 months of age or younger.

beef bowl

Beef bowls like this are one of Japan's most popular fast foods. (Photo credit unknown)
"We hope that this partial reopening consisting of a limited number of approved plants and a highly restrictive list of eligible product is the first step towards the scientifically justified full resumption of beef trade with Japan," said J. Patrick Boyle, president and CEO of the American Meat Institute.

Guidelines issued by the World Organization for Animal Health permit beef from cattle of all ages to be traded provided appropriate risk mitigation measures have been taken.

Before the discovery of the BSE infected cow in May 2003, when there were unrestricted exports of U.S. beef to Japan, the United States exported 1.4 billion dollars worth of beef and beef products to Japan annually.

"I look forward to the day when we resume that level of trade," said Johanns. "To that end, I have asked the Japanese government to meet with us this fall to discuss the next steps toward strengthening our beef trading relationship and graduating to standards based in science."