Agriculture Secretary in Video Conference on Beef Trade Resumption

Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns
Digital Video Conference Press Briefing

December 12, 2005

Secretary Johanns spoke by digital videoconference from Hong Kong during this event.

SECRETARY JOHANNS: Let me start out and just say that I'm pleased that so many have been able to join us today. I'm also very pleased today to announce that the Japanese market is now open to US beef products. Resuming beef trade with Japan is great news for American consumers, and I strongly believe that it is also good news for Japanese consumers. It's an important step toward normalized trade based upon scientifically sound, internationally recognized standards.

Reopening the Japanese market to US beef has been a priority since I became secretary, and I want to thank the many people and organizations who have been a part of this. I especially want to thank our friends in Japan for their diligent efforts. Let me also thank the President of the United States. I appreciated his involvement. I want to thank my colleagues in the President's cabinet, Secretaries Rice, Snow, Gutierrez, and Ambassador Portman, as well as Ambassadors Baker and Schieffer, for making this issue important to them also. I also want to express my appreciation to Chairmen Goodlatte and Chambliss and the entire American meat industry, who have worked so hard on this issue.

Japan's action today sets an example for other countries in Asia whose markets remain closed. Now is the time for South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and others to open their markets to US beef. I urge all countries to take a science-based approach and adopt OIE standards for allowing beef trade to return to normal. American producers are very proud of our safe, high-quality beef products, and we greatly value the opportunity to promote the safety of our products to consumers in Japan. As I have said many times throughout this process, our goal is the resumption of normal beef trade throughout the world, and we will continuously work to that objective.

Under the agreement announced today, the United States is able to export beef from cattle 20 months of age and younger to Japan. More than 94% of total US ruminant and ruminant products, with a total export value of $1.7 billion in 2003, are now eligible for export to Japan. In 2003, the United States exported $1.4 billion worth of beef and beef products into this market. Prior to the December 2003 date when trade was stopped, the US exported beef and beef products to 119 countries. With the opening of Japan, 70 countries have now established trade to US beef and beef products, and I might mention that that is the vast percentage of the trade that occurred before December of 2003. So I end my comments by again just expressing my appreciation to those in Japan who have worked so diligently on this process. With that, I'll open it up to questions. Clay, you can go ahead.

MODERATOR: Mr. Secretary, it's Michael Boyle, I'm the Press Attache here at the Embassy. We've asked all of our reporters to give their name and the name of their organization when they ask the questions. So with that, we'll proceed.

QUESTION: I'm Miwa from TV Asahi. Do you plan to request the Japanese government to expand the condition from 20 months of age and younger cattle to 30 months of age and younger cattle?

SECRETARY JOHANNS: What we have engaged the Japanese government on, as you know, is working through a process that is in compliance with the OIE standards, the international standards for the trade of beef. We'll continue that engagement and discussion, and that was a part of our understanding from the very beginning. But for today, I will tell you that we are just simply very pleased that this decision was made. It gives us a starting point. We have many plants in the United States that are ready to work with this beef export verification approach that we entered into with Japan. And so we think we can move a fair amount of beef to Japan under this standard, and we'll continue to engage in the future.

QUESTION: Yamada at the Japan Agricultural Newspapers. Secretary Johanns, do you believe that US beef is the safest in the world? If so, please let Japanese consumers know why your product is the safest, because the Food Safety Commission of Japan said you have a problem and strongly urged the Japanese government to check your beef safeguard measures.

SECRETARY JOHANNS: We strongly believe our beef is safe. I will share with you, on a personal note, I eat beef nearly every day in the United States. My children do, my grandchildren do. I wouldn't hesitate for a moment to continue that practice and enjoy the very high-quality, the very safe, the very wholesome US beef. The Japanese Food Safety Commission went through a very extensive process. We did everything we could to answer their questions and work with them, and in the end they found equivalency in terms of safety between US and Japan beef. As of today, in our enhanced surveillance program, we've tested about 550,000 animals, animals that the international community would say would be the highest risk for BSE. We were able to find one case in all of that, of BSE, and that case was so extremely weak we had to test and retest, and we finally had to involve the lab in England to assist us in that testing regimen.

My understanding is that as of this morning, I think Japan has identified what we believe is their 19th case. And I point that out just simply because Japan is a country that's familiar with BSE; they understand it. This was not a case where there was a need to re-educate. Those cases in Japan have created an awareness amongst the Japan consumer. But that I think is true worldwide. But very, very clearly under the OIE standards, and now the decision made by Japan, you can trade in beef really anywhere in the world as long as the appropriate actions are taken, the appropriate risk measurements are put in place.

We have those in place, and we have had for many years. We do a ruminant-to-ruminant feed ban. That's been in place for eight years. We remove specified risk materials. Downer animals are banned from the food supply. Again, I say without hesitation that US beef is safe. And again, it's a product that my family and I enjoy almost every day and would not hesitate to continue that practice. I think that's probably the best thing I can tell. Final thought - of the tens and tens of millions of consumers in the United States that enjoy US beef, you just don't find a problem here with the human derivative, so our herd is in excellent shape, it's in excellent condition. We've extensively tested it. And just without hesitation, I say US beef is safe.

QUESTION: I'm Satoko Hara, Nippon Television. My first question is why are you still using meat and bone meal in the United States? Globally speaking, there has been feed ban, feed regulation, but why is it the case that in the United States you are still feeding MBM to beef? Do you have any idea to regulate this feeding practice? That is my first question. Secondly, regarding SRM removal, one of the conditions for import by Japan was removal of SRM. Vis-a-vis this removal, there have been a number of violation cases in the United States. But vis-a-vis Japanese public, how could you reassure the Japanese public that there will be no violation in the future?

SECRETARY JOHANNS: One of the challenges we've had with the story about BSE is that there has been so much misinformation out there. We read the stories, and some of it just flat isn't accurate, so we do our very, very best to get accurate information out there. Let me tell you, we do not feed beef bone meal to animals. We have banned ruminant-to-ruminant feeding now for eight years. I will tell you, in terms of the transmissibility of BSE, we have learned a lot about BSE over the years in the world. One of the things that we have learned is that this is not something that is spread by one animal sneezing on another or something like that. It really is spread by that practice that you describe, but that practice was banned in the United States eight years ago, and it's one of the things that we mentioned in terms of our firewall. We do not feed beef bone meal to animals in the United States.

The second area, in terms of the removal of SRMs, we have a very, very thorough process in place for the removal of SRMs. If we find that a plant is not doing the job we want, we write them up, and we don't hesitate to do that, and our inspectors have the ability to literally shut that plant down, to withdraw inspection, which effectively shuts it down. So I would tell you that we welcome Japanese inspectors to look at our plants, to see that the job we're doing is thorough and consistent. We won't have any problem with that whatsoever. But again, if we have a plant that's not getting the job done, our inspectors have the power to not only write that up, but to make sure that there is absolute compliance with the requirements to remove SRMs.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, my name is Shota Sato. I work for TBS News in Tokyo. Going back to the first question, it was about the possibility of the USA asking Japan to open up our market to cattle beef for under 30 months old. I didn't get that one clear, sir. So could you tell us once again, please?

SECRETARY JOHANNS: What we have always asked of our trading partners - Japan included - is that we proceed on a science-based basis, complying with OIE standards. That's the approach we would take with any of our trading partners. I indicated a little earlier today that we have been going through our own risk-based analysis, relative to wagyu beef. And at 8:00 this morning, we will issue a statement indicating a resumption of trade in that with Japan. Now some might look at that and say, Mr. Secretary, they've had 19 cases. What's this all about? Well, what it's about is very, very clear. There just isn't any doubt at all that trade in beef can occur even in countries that have identified a case - or multiple cases - of BSE. As long as that country is following the risk-based practices and doing the things that are necessary, then trade can continue. So the answer to your question is, we will always engage our trading partners in compliance with the international standards, moving in that direction. And that's exactly what we're doing in this case.

QUESTION: My name is Tomohiko Mikasa from Nihon Keizai Shimbun - Nikkei. Regarding OIE standards, the US has been seeking to redress the trading situation. Now, in the case of the United States, you are not importing Japanese beef. In what aspect of Japanese beef do you think they are not OIE-standard compliant? Could you comment on this?

SECRETARY JOHANNS: What I would say is this: Every country has been moving through a process relative to BSE. In Japan's case, they took a very important step today, just as we have taken steps with Canada. As you know, we had a minimal risk rule that we worked through with Canada. Actually, I defended a court case involving that. Some countries have yet to open their borders, but I have every reason to believe that the world is very definitely moving in the direction of a science-based risk analysis approach. We see Japan as doing that. Some countries have decided to do it on a step-by-step basis. Other countries have taken bigger steps, but I'd rather frame it in terms of, "our discussions continue." We are very, very pleased with the decision made. It's a very, very positive step. We are very appreciative that Japan has gone through the process and reached the conclusion that they have.

QUESTION: My name is Ikematsu from the Yomiuri Shimbun. According to this program, the resumption of trade ... so what quantity of US beef is now eligible to be exported to Japan?

SECRETARY JOHANNS: Our calculations indicate that about 94% of US beef would be eligible under the standard that is set. Now, I will also tell you that not all US beef will go through the process, for this reason: There are plants in the United States that are ready to go through the additional steps that are in place because of the decision by Japan. Those plants will - I think very quickly - satisfy all the requirements, make sure that Japan is satisfied. Japan is sending a team to the United States. They will do inspection and that sort of thing. We are very engaged in that. So even though you've got that very large percentage that would be eligible, not all of that will make themselves eligible for actually transporting beef from the United States into Japan. So it will be a smaller percentage than that. I'm not sure exactly what that percentage will be, when it's all said and done. It would just depend. We'll know the answer to that over time.

QUESTION: My name is Hara from Japan TV. Let me try to check your response regarding meat bone meal. Currently, I understand that you are feeding, nevertheless, MBM of beef to poultry and other animals, but regarding these feedings, you have no regulation that would be changed. You do not have an idea to change the regulation for feeding MBM to other animals like poultry and others?

SECRETARY JOHANNS: I think you're referring to a rule that is actually under discussion now at the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration. They have been looking at some features, in terms of poultry that they're taking a look at, that they have been seeking comment on. They've been studying that for some period of time. But let me again get back to the question you've asked. You asked me very directly; in fact you said, "You're feeding bone meal to beef in the United States, to cattle." And we just simply aren't. And that is not the case. That was banned by a ruminant-to-ruminant feeding ban about eight years ago. The other thing I would tell you about that, we have seen the results, and you know we have now tested 550,000 animals in the United States. In the enhanced surveillance, we only found that one animal, which again I will emphasize was a very, very weak case - that's how the scientists described it, as a very tough case to even identify. That indicates to me that the safety of our herd is very, very clear, but what it also indicates is that the ruminant-to-ruminant feed ban that we put in place eight years ago is working. It's doing exactly what we intended. I will tell you, eight years ago, some believed that maybe that was too strict, but I think we have found from experience that it was the right decision eight years ago. And now, we have found through not only experience but actual testing of 550,000 animals or more, that in fact the US herd, in terms of BSE, is just in excellent shape. It's very difficult to find BSE in the US herd, as our testing has indicated.

QUESTION: I want to ask you again and try asking in English. You said you asked the trade partners to consider the international standard. And considering the international standard as the OIE standard, why cannot Japan export our beef, Japanese beef, to America? What point that we Japanese cannot clear such OIE standard about exporting our beef to America?

SECRETARY JOHANNS: Well, I'm very pleased to tell you that you can. We will announce at 8:00 Eastern time in the United States that we are resuming trade with Japan beef. We have been going through a rule-making process of our own, just as Japan was going through a rule-making process, where we do risk analysis and scientific analysis and that sort of thing. We have wrapped that up, and we will be announcing at 8:00 this morning in the United States, Eastern time, that in fact the answer to your question will be yes. Japan will be able to sell wagyu beef into the US marketplace. Now again, I will point out to you, some may ask us, there's been 19 cases that we recognize in the US. Well again, under international standards, if the risk mitigation efforts are in place, it's recognized that you can safely trade in beef, not only in terms of animal health, but in terms of human health. And so we've reached the conclusion that beef trade should resume, and like I said, we'll be announcing that in just a few hours.

I think the other part of your question was age limit. There is no age limit on what we are doing in terms of Japan beef.

QUESTION: My name is Igawa from Mainichi Shimbun. Now in the case of Japan, we are only allowing the import of beef product of 20 months age or below, because we have already identified infected cows of 21 months age and 23 months of age. Now, if you are going to request expanding this limitation, what kind of reasons would you bring to convince Japan to allow for relaxation of this standard?

SECRETARY JOHANNS: [inaudible] and what I would say to you is, that 21-month-old animal and that 23-month-old animal, there was some discussion about whether in fact that was a BSE case. But be that as it may, let me just say this: We recognize, and again, I think if you look at the international community, there is a recognition that beef can be traded safely notwithstanding the age of the animal, if you have proper safeguards in place. We approached it that way when we looked at the role relative to wagyu beef, and so we encourage the world to engage in that recognition and in that discussion. Again, I would emphasize there just appears to be no question whatsoever that with the proper risk approach taken, when you have the proper safeguards in place, that you can trade in beef from older animals and not have a risk either to your beef population or your human population.

Any other questions?

QUESTION: My name is Kawakami from Tokyo Shimbun. So today the Japanese side has decided to resume the beef trade with the US, and the background is that, for one thing, as for the participation of the US in the WTO, so what is your take about the background of the Japanese government accepting to resume the beef trade? Does it have something to do with the WTO meeting?

SECRETARY JOHANNS: It really isn't connected. The announcement was made at a time when we were here at the ministerial meeting, but as you know, this has been in the process now for about two years, and our effort has been in the process, relative to wagyu beef, for a long period of time. But really, I don't see any connection at all with the fact that we happen to be in Hong Kong for the ministerial meeting. This was in place long, long before this Hong Kong meeting.

QUESTION: Miwa from TV Asahi again. Have you already reported this news to President Bush? If so, how was his reaction?

SECRETARY JOHANNS: I have not talked to him. They were aware, because once the announcement was made by Japan, I indicated that word should be passed to the White House, but in the United States, as you know, it's the middle of the night as I speak. It's probably about 1:30 in the morning on the East Coast, so hopefully he's getting a good night's rest, and he will awake in the morning to his advisers giving him this good news.

QUESTION: So according to various public opinion polls, I hear that more than two-thirds of Japanese consumers say they do not want to eat US beef. So what I heard from one of the Japanese ... there are some voices calling for blanket testing of all the cattle to USDA, in reaction to the concerns of the Japanese population. So what would you respond to such voices, Mr. Secretary?

SECRETARY JOHANNS: I'm aware of that. Other members of the Japanese media have made me aware of that poll, and they've asked me about it. Here's what I would offer. First, we're very anxious to work with the Japanese consumer, to do everything we can to provide information to them so they can make a decision. I can tell you in terms of one US consumer, that being the Secretary of Agriculture, that American beef is safe. Again, I point out to you that myself, my family, my children, my grandchildren, we enjoy American beef and it's part of our diet nearly every day and feel no risk whatsoever. The second thing I would say to the Japanese consumer is that at least in terms of where we are at today, it does start at 20 months, and you just don't find BSE in that age limit. The third thing that I would say, based upon the international standards, is beef can safely be traded. And there just isn't any doubt about that. It can safely be traded when the safeguards are in place, and in the US, the safeguards are in place.

But I would also say that about Japanese beef. There have been a lot more cases in Japan, but we don't hesitate. We've gone through a very thorough risk assessment here, and notwithstanding that now I think they've identified 19 cases that we can recognize, we still believe that it is safe to trade in wagyu beef. We're welcoming it back to our marketplace, again, because safeguards are in place, and we're not even age-limited in terms of where we're at in terms of Japanese beef. So all of these things, I hope, will satisfy the consumer that in fact, US beef is safe. So we look forward to our returning to the marketplace. We will do everything we can do to provide information to the consumer and provide information about how safe US beef is.

QUESTION: Secretary Johanns, what I would like to ask you is what are you going to do with the request by American packing house to do their own blanket testing for the Japanese market? Thank you.

SECRETARY JOHANNS: I'm not sure I picked that all up. [inaudible] Oh, I understand. I was asking for a clarification here as to your question. We don't have any plans at all to change, and international standards would not require what you're seeking. Again, I point out that all the safeguards that are in place, there just isn't any question about the safety of US beef. And I can tell you that we felt comfortable, very comfortable, in saying the same thing about wagyu beef, which will be returning to our country. So there just aren't any plans to do the 100% testing that you're talking about etc. And I would also point out that there just aren't any international requirements for that kind of testing to be done by any country, anywhere in the world.

QUESTION: My name is Hara from NTV. Let me ask you one last question. Sorry, I want to rephrase my first question. There is a question concerning Japanese people's concern over the safety of US beef. I suppose the reason for that is that you still feed meat and bone meal to chickens and pigs, and looking at that from the international standards, I suppose there are many voices of concern over such US practices, so I think one way to approach Japanese consumers is to impose an overall ban on the meat and bone meal being fed to all the animals.

SECRETARY JOHANNS: Well again, I would just point out to you, we don't. I don't know how much clearer I can be. But bone meal fed from - or fed to beef - just doesn't happen. It is prohibited, and so in terms of beef, that ruminant-to-ruminant feed ban has been in place for a long time in the United States. Probably the best proof I can offer you, though, that it really is working, is that after the very extensive testing, the very extensive surveillance testing we've done in the United States, we have found that BSE in the US beef just ... you know we found one very, very light case in testing of 550,000 animals. That tells me our practices are working, and working in a very, very positive way. So again, I just tell you very directly and clearly: We just don't feed bone meal to beef animals in the United States.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me just wrap up and again, say thank you very, very much for your patience and for joining us today. We will issue the statement on wagyu beef at 8:00 Eastern time in the United States, which would be about seven hours from now, a little less than seven hours from now. We will put that up on our website, and again, I want to thank everyone who has been involved in this process. We appreciate it immensely.

MODERATOR: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much.