Japan officials, U.S. industry discount progress on lifting beef ban

Japanese officials and U.S. beef industry sources are downplaying reports of major progress in the lifting of Japan's ban on American beef.

Japanese officials and U.S. beef industry sources are downplaying reports of major progress in the lifting of Japan's ban on American beef.

The Associated Press reported Monday that Japan is moving toward allowing a resumption of imports if American officials can guarantee the beef is from cattle no older than 20 months at slaughter.

"Every report in the media is speculation," said Karen Batra, a spokeswoman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

In Tokyo, Japan's agriculture minister said Friday that the countries were not likely to make major progress toward lifting Japan's ban during this week's summit between President Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in New York, The Japan Times reported.

The U.S. government has been insisting on a 30-month age limit and is not keen on compromising because that would cast doubts on the American food safety system, said Ernie Davis, a livestock economist at Texas A&M University.

Japan was the world's biggest buyer of U.S. beef, importing $1.2 billion a year, before the discovery in December of mad cow disease in a Canadian-bred Holstein cow in Washington state.

Exports had accounted for about 10 percent of U.S. cattle sold, but this year the percentage is likely to drop to 3 percent or lower because of the bans by such key customers as Japan and South Korea, Davis said. More than a third of exported beef was bought by Japan before the ban.

As the nation's biggest cattle producer, Texas stands to benefit by a reopening of the Asian markets, but other issues like permitting all Canadian beef and cattle into the United States could mitigate the impact, Davis said.

"My gut tells me something will happen," said Matt Brockman, executive vice president of the Fort Worth-based Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. "I wish my crystal ball was clearer because it would have some impact on my members."

Canadian cattle and boxed beef were banned by the U.S. government after mad cow disease surfaced in Ontario in May 2003. The curb was eased three months later to permit the import of certain cuts of beef from Canadian cattle less than 30 months old.

Japan has demanded that every American head of cattle destined for its market be tested for mad cow disease, a costly standard the Japanese have employed in their own domestic cattle slaughter. Since 2001, 12 Japanese cases of mad cow disease have been confirmed.

U.S. negotiators have rejected a blanket testing of all cattle, saying it's unnecessary.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

(c) 2004, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Texas. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.