Japan Sees Hurdles Remaining in U.S. Beef Talks
TOKYO Japan, cautiously seeking ways to resume U.S. beef imports, sees hurdles remaining even if it abandons its demand that the United States test all cattle for mad cow disease, which Washington has rejected, before restarting trade.
Japan, the top foreign buyer of American beef, suspended imports worth some US$1.4 billion a year after the United States discovered its first case of mad cow disease last December.
Japanese media reported on Wednesday that Tokyo would decide by the end of this week to exclude animals aged 20 months or younger from blanket-testing all cattle for the deadly disease, formally called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).
The decision might not satisfy the United States, which has said cattle under 30 months old should be excluded because tests are unlikely to detect the disease in animals below that age.
"Twenty months is a realistic option. We won't concede on this," said a senior official of Japan's Agriculture Ministry.
The Japanese stance is based on the fact that the youngest case of BSE found in Japan was in an animal aged 21 months. Even if Washington accepts the 20-month age threshold, the problem remains about how to identify the age of each animal.
Japan, which has introduced a system that records the date of birth for all domestic cattle, can determine a precise age. But in the United States such a system is not in place. Some U.S. beef producers say they can determine if an animal is aged 20 months or younger by checking the quality of meat.
Tokyo has maintained the same safety policy must apply to domestic and foreign cattle slaughtered for consumption in Japan.
Another point of contention is treatment of specified risk material (SRM). Japan has said SRM, including bovine heads and spinal cords, should be removed from all cattle slaughtered for food, regardless of their age.
But the United States has said that since the risk of BSE in the country is low, SRM removal should be implemented only for cattle 30 months of age and older as per international guidelines.
Japanese officials are also concerned about a possible consumer backlash if they press for an end to blanket BSE testing. A survey conducted earlier this month by the Japanese daily Mainichi Shimbun showed that 65 percent of the respondents were opposed to resuming imports of beef from young U.S. cattle without conducting BSE tests.
"When food safety is the issue at stake, then every possible step must be taken to see that safety is secured," said Masahiko Yamada, a lawmaker from Japan's main opposition Democratic Party who opposes an end to blanket BSE testing.
Several local governments, such as Gifu prefecture in central Japan where premium beef is produced, have said they would keep conducting BSE tests on all cattle born in their regions in an attempt to reassure consumers of the safety of their beef.
Japan began testing all cattle for mad cow disease in October 2001, one month after the discovery of its first BSE case, in order to ease consumer concerns about beef safety.
Beef consumption in Japan fell more than 50 percent in late 2001 from year-earlier levels, as consumers shunned beef for fears of catching variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, a human form of BSE.
The disease, which can result from eating contaminated beef products, has been blamed for the deaths of some 130 people in Europe. There have been no reports of people being affected by the disease in Japan.
Japan has so far confirmed 13 cases of mad cow disease since the brain-wasting illness was first discovered in September 2001.