U.S. Beef Talks May Progress as Japan Gathers Mad-Cow Risk Data

Japan, the biggest buyer of American beef before an outbreak of mad cow disease prompted the country to ban imports, is analyzing the safety of meat from cattle older than 20 months amid U.S. calls to normalize the trade.

Japan restricts U.S. beef imports to cattle aged 20 months or younger on concern that older animals may be at higher risk for the disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy. The nation’s Food Safety Commission must rule that any change in policy won’t increase human health risks, in order for imports of older cattle to resume.

Japan banned American beef when the U.S. disclosed its first case in 2003. The ban was relaxed in 2005 to allow meat from young cattle. Companies including Tyson Foods Inc. and Cargill Inc. lose about $1 billion in sales a year because of the restriction, said the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

“We have to collect enough data before submitting a request to the Food Safety Commission for risk assessment,” Minoru Yamamoto, director at the international animal health affairs office of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, said in an interview in Tokyo. “We are seeking information from the U.S. and waiting for their replies.”

Mexico, South Korea and Taiwan buy U.S. beef from cattle younger than 30 months. Canada, Indonesia and Malaysia accept the meat from animals of any age, in line with international guidelines. Japan also requires U.S. shippers to remove risk materials, such as the spinal cord, that can transmit the disease to humans if consumed.

Beef Shipments

If Japan raises the age limit to 30 months, U.S. beef shipments to the Asian nation may return close to pre-ban levels, said Susumu Harada, senior director at the Tokyo office of the U.S. Meat Export Federation.

“The change would remove obstacles in the beef trade as U.S. products for overseas shipments are mostly from cattle aged up to 24 months,” Harada said in an interview.

Japan imported 475,000 metric tons of beef last fiscal year, of which 75 percent was from Australia and 16 percent was from the U.S., according to the agriculture ministry. In the year ended March 31, 2004, U.S. beef represented 201,000 tons, or 39 percent, of Japan’s total imports. Japan banned U.S. beef in December 2003, prompting restaurant chain operator Yoshinoya Holdings Co. to suspend sales of its “gyudon” beef bowl.

U.S. government representatives will visit Japan as Agriculture Minister Michihiko Kano will chair a ministerial meeting on food security of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation members from Oct. 16-17. Kano replaced Masahiko Yamada, known for his tough stance on food safety, when Prime Minister Naoto Kan reshuffled his cabinet on Sept. 17.

‘Sound Science’

U.S. lawmakers called President Barack Obama to address beef trade during his meeting with Kan when the Japanese prime minister visited the nation last month, saying Japan’s restrictions “are not based on sound science nor are they consistent with international guidelines.”

“At the very least, Japan should agree to immediately relax its age restrictions to 30 months as an interim step on a pathway that would amend its import protocol to be consistent with OIE guidelines,” senators including former Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns and agriculture committee member Pat Roberts said in a letter to the president.

The World Organization for Animal Health, also known as OIE, voted in May 2007 to give the U.S. its “controlled-risk” rating for mad cow disease. The designation means controls are effective, and meat from U.S. cattle of any age can be safely traded. The OIE standards are used to settle trade disputes at the World Trade Organization.

Relaxing Restriction

Kano told reporters on Sept. 24 that Japan was “making a decision based on scientific knowledge” regarding food-safety issues. His remarks came a day after Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara was quoted by Kyodo News as telling Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that relaxing the age restriction would be considered.

Japan planned to ease the restriction on U.S. beef imports to allow meat from cattle aged up to 30 months in 2007 under the former government of the Liberal Democratic Party. The administration of President George W. Bush had urged Japan to eliminate the age limitation completely, in line with international standards, and the deadlock continued.

Japan and the U.S. held their first working-level meeting in three years last month, based on an agreement reached in April between Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and then Agriculture Minister Hirotaka Akamatsu to resume beef talks.

Double Exports

President Obama’s administration increased pressure on Japan to re-open its market to U.S. beef as part of a goal to double the country’s exports in the next five years.

Japan was the third-largest destination for U.S. beef last year, at $470 million, up from $383 million in 2008, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation. That compares with $1.391 billion in 2003. Mexico and Canada were the biggest buyers of U.S. beef last year.

More than 100 countries buy beef from the U.S., which has found three cases of the disease in the past two decades, and no incidents in the last three years, Vilsack said on April 9 in Tokyo.

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