Japan Reopens Market to Imports of U.S. Beef

By Susan Krause
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - The United States and Japan have reached an agreement that will reopen Japanese markets to imports of U.S. beef, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced December 11.

Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns, joined by United States Trade Representative (USTR) Rob Portman, spoke to reporters at a joint press conference in Hong Kong December 12.  The two are in Asia for the Sixth Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO).  

"Resuming beef trade with Japan is great news for American producers and Japanese consumers, as well as an important step toward normalized trade based upon scientifically sound, internationally recognized standards," Johanns said.  

Japan imposed an embargo on U.S. beef exports in December 2003, after a case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or "mad cow" disease) was discovered in Washington state, in a cow that had been imported from Canada.  Consumption of BSE-infected beef has been linked to a variant form of the degenerative brain disorder Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. 

For several months, the United States and Japan engaged in intensive efforts to reach a compromise solution that would allow for the restoration of normal beef trade.  In April 2004, with the two sides deadlocked over Japan's insistence on 100 percent testing of animals as a condition for entry of U.S. beef into the Japanese market, the United States proposed joint technical consultations with the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) to determine science-based standards for surveillance, testing and handling of cattle.  A series of bilateral technical working group meetings followed, which led to the conclusion in October 2004 of a framework agreement to allow the resumption of beef trade.   

In March 2005, with little evidence of progress, the U.S. permanent representative to the WTO appeared before the trade organization's Sanitary and Phytosanitary Committee to argue that Japan's restrictions raised "serious concerns under the WTO agreements."  U.S. officials argued that the United States had cooperated with Japan to resolve technical issues related to food safety and animal health, and that the United States applies internationally acceptable standards to ensure the safety of U.S. beef. 

Before the ban, Japan was the largest single market for U.S. beef, importing $1.4 billion worth of beef and beef products in 2003. 

A wave of embargoes following the December 2003 BSE discovery dealt a severe blow to the U.S. beef industry.  According to USDA, the United States exported beef and beef products to 119 countries in 2003.  With Japan's decision to reopen its markets, a total of 67 countries now permit imports of U.S. beef and beef products, often with specific terms. 

Johanns said he hoped Japan's decision would be an incentive to other nations that still maintain embargoes. 

"Japan's action today set an excellent example for other countries in Asia whose markets remain closed," he said.  "Now is the time for Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, China, Singapore and others to open their markets to U.S. beef.  I urge all countries to take a science-based approach and adopt OIE standards for allowing beef trade."

Under the new agreement with Japan, USDA says the United States will be able to export beef from cattle aged 20 months or younger.  No cases of BSE have been found in animals of that age. 

"More than 94 percent of total U.S. ruminant and ruminant products, with a total export value of $1.7 billion in 2003, are now eligible for export to Japan," the December 11 USDA statement said. 

In their press conference, Johanns and Portman expressed appreciation to Japan for its "painstaking" efforts in resolving the issue, and commended Japanese Agriculture Minister Shoichi Nakagawa for his assistance.

"[B]eef could be heading toward Japan … within the next week to ten days," Johanns said.  "I don't think either side is anticipating any surprises at all.  We should be ready to implement this very quickly."


In a separate statement on December 12, USDA announced that the United States has amended its regulations on imports of meat and other animal products to allow for importation under certain conditions of whole cuts of boneless beef from Japan.

USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) imposed restrictions on imports of ruminants and ruminant products from Japan in September 2001, following the confirmation of a case of BSE in a native-born cow in that country.  The restrictions had limited the import of Japan's exclusive Kobe beef.

After completing a risk analysis, APHIS determined that such beef may be imported into the United States if it is prepared in an establishment that meets the requirements of the U.S. Federal Meat Inspection Act, and if it is certified by an authorized veterinary official of the Japanese government. 

A USDA statement on the amended regulations, Johanns’ statement regarding the opening of the Japanese market to U.S. beef, and a transcript of the Johanns-Portman press conference are available on the USDA Web site.

For information on the WTO talks in Hong Kong, see WTO Hong Kong Ministerial Meeting.