United States Urges Japan To Stay Engaged on Beef Standards

By Susan Krause
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington – Even as he welcomes Japan's decision to reopen its market to most U.S. exports of beef and beef products, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns is calling for continued bilateral engagement on beef trade.

Speaking to reporters December 12 in Hong Kong, where he is attending the Sixth Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Johanns said the two countries had taken "an important step toward normalized trade based on scientifically sound, internationally recognized standards."

But he urged Japan to continue discussions on remaining issues in order to bring trade between the two countries into compliance with the standards of the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE).

Japan blocked the importation of U.S. beef in December 2003, after a cow infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or mad cow disease) was found in the state of Washington.  After extended negotiations, the Japanese government announced December 12 that it would allow imports of U.S. beef and beef products from cattle aged 20 months or younger.  The age restriction reflects the fact that the disease has not been found in younger animals. (See related article.)

"[W]hat we ask of Japan is to continue to engage in this discussion," Johanns said.  "Our focus is on compliance with the OIE standards, so we're going to continue that effort."

Johanns said he could not predict what kind of time line might be involved in continued discussions between the two countries, or when the United States might be able to resume exports of older animals to Japan.  He noted that the agreement on exports of younger cattle was reached before his term as secretary of agriculture began in January.

The secretary said the Department of Agriculture (USDA) would employ confidence-building measures to restore the United States' share of Japan's beef market.

"[T]here's now in place a beef export verification program," he said.  "We need to make sure that we comply with the requirements set forth by the Japanese for entry of beef into their country."

Johanns said he welcomed the arrival of a team of inspectors from Japan.

"I think we just really need to reach out and work with the consumer in Japan," he said.   "We are very optimistic that the consumer will respond favorably to our beef.  We have indications that that's going to occur.  But we don't assume that.  We make the assumption that we're going to have to work with and reach out to the Japanese consumer.  But we believe we can do so successfully, we believe very strongly we've got a very safe product in beef, and a very good product."


The National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), a U.S. industry group, released a statement December 12 welcoming Japan's decision to ease trade restrictions. 

"We're much relieved to see some genuine movement here, but U.S. cattlemen will continue to work toward fully reinstating access for our products around the world, based upon internationally recognized guidelines," said Jamie Willrett, chairman of NCBA's International Markets committee.

According to NCBA, more than 500,000 animals considered at highest risk for BSE have been tested since 2004 under USDA's Enhanced BSE Surveillance Program, and only one case of the disease has been confirmed - proof, the industry association says, that "U.S. firewalls are working and the prevalence of this disease in U.S. cattle is extremely low, almost fully eradicated."

The USDA's beef export verification program assures that U.S. cattle will go through a Quality System Assessment that reaches from farm to packer and assures that the source and age of all beef is verified, the NCBA statement said.

"It is extremely important to remember:  no matter the age of cattle, all U.S. beef is safe from BSE thanks to strict preventative measures and progressive steps taken by the U.S. government over the past 16 years," said NCBA chief economist Gregg Doud.  "In addition to animal surveillance, we have the added precaution of removing any material that could carry BSE from the beef supply to make sure it is safe for U.S. and global consumers."

NCBA estimates that the U.S. cattle industry has lost $3.14 billion a year because of trade embargoes related to BSE. 

"Today, we applaud Japan's move," Doud said, adding that the industry now is "plowing straight ahead into the next steps needed to fully reopen this and all export markets to U.S. beef."

Additional information on BSE is available on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Web site, and on the Department of Agriculture Web site.