Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Japan ends two-year ban on US beef

TOKYO, Dec. 12, 2005 -- Japan gave the final go-ahead Monday to resume imports of some US beef after a two-year ban, averting a potential trade war between the close political allies. But it remains to be seen if the decision will bring closure to the drawn-out saga, with only a small amount of US beef set to return to the shelves in what used to be the US industry's biggest overseas market. "It was approved to restart the imports," senior vice agriculture minister Mitsuhiro Miyakoshi told reporters after a ministry meeting. He said Japan would send inspectors to North America to ensure compliance with Japanese safety guidelines -- that the slaughtered cattle be no more than 20 months old and risky parts of their bodies removed. The United States has sought to relax the rules by lowering the age of slaughtered cattle to 30 months old -- a proposal rejected by Japan. "We hear through the media that the US may want to export beef 30 months or younger but the US side has accepted the conditions presented by Japan," Miyakoshi said. Japan barred imports of US beef in December 2003 after cases of mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), were discovered in cattle in the country. It was a devastating blow to the US farming industry as Japan was the number one overseas market for its beef, buying 1.7 billion dollars worth in 2002. Japan had imposed a similar ban on Canadian beef in May 2003. The row with Washington turned bitter in October 2004 when Japan promised to exempt US cows aged 20 months or younger from screening if high-risk parts were removed. Washington interpreted the agreement as a breakthrough but Tokyo said it needed more time to verify how to test the age of the cattle. The United States then applied intense pressure on Japan to resume beef imports, with the issue consistently raised in visits by US envoys to Washington's closest Asian ally. US farm-state senators had even pressed for sanctions worth 3.1 billion dollars unless Tokyo opened up again by the year-end. It is still unclear, however, if the lifting of the ban will appease disgruntled US farmers and politicians, with Japan expected only to import a fraction of the beef it once took in. Polls show that many Japanese are unlikely to start eating North American beef again any time soon. A survey published by Kyodo News last week showed 75.2 percent of Japanese surveyed would be unwilling to eat the beef. US Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said Friday there was nothing to fear despite the discouraging poll figures. "I can assure the Japanese consumer that beyond a shadow of a doubt, US beef is safe," he said. "We will be ready to comply with the regulations and rules that we have worked through with Japan on this issue. I've a smile on my face." Johanns also said that Washington was preparing to lift a ban on Japanese beef to coincide with the imminent resumption of US beef exports to Japan. The United States in 2001 banned Japanese beef imports -- mostly the niche market of luxury Kobe beef -- after Japan became the only Asian country to report mad-cow disease in a herd. Japan exported 800,000 dollars worth of beef to the United States in 2000. Copyright 2005 Agence France Presse