Japan Proposes Easing Restrictions on U.S. Beef Imports

Japan’s health ministry said restrictions on U.S. beef imposed to safeguard against mad cow disease should be eased, paving the way for companies including Tyson Foods Inc. to boost shipments.

The ministry proposed relaxing the restrictions at a meeting of its expert panel today, saying risks for the brain-wasting disease have receded internationally.

“European countries have changed their safeguard measures in line with decreasing risks for the disease,” Hideshi Michino, director at the ministry’s office of imported food safety, said at the meeting in Tokyo. “We need to revise our policy for testing and import control.”

Japan, the biggest buyer of American beef before an outbreak in 2003, 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 new rule may boost Japanese purchases from U.S. meat shippers, and contribute to President Barack Obama’s target to double exports in five years and create more jobs.

The government should consider if it is appropriate to adopt the standard set by the World Organization for Animal Health, Hisa Anan, a panel member, said at the meeting today

The organization, 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 group also recommends heads, spinal cords and spinal columns should be removed from all cattle older than 30 months before their meat are shipped, as the materials could spread the disease.

Health Risks

Japan requires U.S. meat shippers to remove the risk materials from all cattle of any age before exports.

The country’s Food Safety Commission must confirm that any change in policy won’t increase human health risks before the government decides to ease restrictions against mad cow disease.

“We will coordinate with the commission how to change the restrictions,” said Michino at the health ministry. “We will also have discussions with relevant countries over beef import regulations.”

Canada, France and the Netherlands are also asking Japan to relax control over beef imports, Michino said. Japan applies the same restrictions on imports of Canadian beef as the U.S., while the government retains ban on imports from the European countries.

Japan banned U.S. beef in December 2003, prompting restaurant chain operator Yoshinoya Holdings Co. to suspend sales of its “gyudon” beef bowl. The U.S. was the largest beef exporter to Japan after Australia in 2003, supplying 267,583 metric tons worth 128.5 billion yen ($1.6 billion), data from the agriculture ministry showed.

In the eight months ended Aug. 31, Japan imported 76,892 tons of U.S. beef, surging 48 percent from a year earlier, as the yen’s rally to a postwar record against the dollar made American produce more affordable to Japanese consumers. Concern about the safety of domestic beef also boosted imports as fallout from a crippled Fukushima nuclear station tainted Japanese cattle feed and meat.

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