Press Conference with Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns on Beef Exports to Japan

Washington, D.C.
January 20, 2006

SECRETARY MIKE JOHANNS: Good morning, everyone. Let me go ahead and get us started today. Let me start by saying, I appreciate your patience in me getting out here to offer some thoughts and then take your questions.

We did issue a statement, a written statement, as you know, a little earlier today, within the last half hour or 45 minutes. I think very, very quickly here, we'll have another statement that we'll issue which is basically the same, although we've added some additional items to that. I just wanted to alert you to pay attention to that second statement.

But I'd also like to offer some thoughts, and then, like I said, I'd be happy to take any questions that you might have.

In reference to the situation in terms of shipment of beef to Japan, I want to emphasize very, very strongly that we take this matter very seriously. And we have already kicked off the process to conduct a very thorough investigation.

Under U.S. regulations, the backbone, or the vertebral column, which was exported to Japan would not be a "specified risk material" because it was from beef under 20 months old. However, as you know our agreement with Japan is to export beef with no vertebral column, and very clearly what we have learned about this shipment is that it failed to meet the terms of that agreement.

A little earlier this morning I did have an opportunity to talk to Ambassador Kato, and I expressed our sincere regret and informed him of the actions that I intend to take and the actions that I will address this morning with you.

I also offered to provide in writing a very detailed report of our investigation and the actions we intend to take. The processing plant that exported this product, I do want to indicate to you, has been delisted, and therefore can no longer export beef into the Japan marketplace. We will take the appropriate personnel action against the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service employee who conducted the inspection of the product in question and approved it for shipment into the Japanese marketplace.

I am dispatching a team of USDA inspectors to Japan to work with the Japanese inspectors to reexamine every shipment currently awaiting approval so we can confirm compliance with the requirements of the export agreement that we have with the country of Japan.

I have directed that additional USDA inspectors be sent to every plant that is approved to export beef to review procedures and ensure compliance with our export agreements. And I am requiring that two USDA inspectors review every shipment of U.S. beef for export to confirm that that compliance into the export market has, in fact, occurred.

I have also ordered unannounced inspections of every plant that is approved for beef export.

These additional inspection requirements in the United States will be applied to all processing plants approved for beef export and all beef shipments designated for export from the United States.

I am also requiring that all USDA beef inspectors undergo additional training to ensure their familiarity with the various export agreements we have in beef.

I have also directed my staff to coordinate a meeting of representatives from the U.S. processing plants approved to export beef to review the requirements of our export agreements.

While this is not a food safety issue, this is an unacceptable failure on our part to meet the requirements of our agreement with this trading partner, the country of Japan. And as I said when I started, we are taking this matter very seriously, recognizing the importance of our beef export markets. And we are acting swiftly and firmly.

So to summarize, the steps that I have identified are these:

  1. We will be submitting a report to the government of Japan on our investigation, our actions, and the consequences for failure to comply with our requirements.

  2. The plant in question has been delisted for export of beef products into Japan.

  3. We will require a second FSIS signature on our BEV export certificates.

  4. Unannounced USDA inspections will be a part of the BEV program.

  5. FSIS will hold a conference call with district managers on Friday, January 20th - today - to reaffirm requirements on all countries with which we have a Bovine Export Verification program.

  6. We are having our District Offices and Offices of International Affairs on a conference call on Monday, January 23, to reaffirm requirements of all countries relative to the BEV program.

  7. We will require inspectors in these BEV plants to review procedures and ensure compliance.

  8. No additional plants will be listed under the BEV programs until the proper procedures are in place.

  9. Ne intend to dispatch a team to Japan to work with the Japanese government to review all shipments that are there to ensure compliance.

  10. FSIS will conduct an investigation of the plant in question.

  11. Further training of FSIS inspectors on BEV requirements and a required signed validation that they have successfully completed the training.

  12. Meeting of all plants that participate in the BEV program to ensure that they have met the requirements.

With that I'd be happy to take any questions that you might have.


QUESTION: (off-mike)

SEC. JOHANNS: We will be in contact with other countries. As you know, this developed through the evening hours here. But we intend to make them aware of what we have put in place here and to explain to them the situation that occurred in this situation.

What I would offer in terms of our other export markets, as you know the agreement we've reached with Japan was unusual. I've talked about that before. In order to reestablish a market in Japan we agreed to animals - or beef product - under 20 months of age, animals under 20 months. So it's a little bit different than what we've done in any other part of the country.

So, but we will work with them. We'll make sure that they understand how we've responded, what occurred here, and we'll do that with all of our export markets.

I'm going to go back here. Yes?

QUESTION: (off-mike)

SEC. JOHANNS: I have no indication whatsoever in terms of what they've decided to do. I can offer this. Basically, as I understand the Japanese action, what they have really done is freeze-framed the product that is there. In other words, that product isn't going to move into the Japanese marketplace until they're satisfied that we have met their concerns and their requirements. And we're going to act very, very aggressively to make sure that whatever questions they have, whatever concerns they have, we are addressing. And then we've really even gone beyond that.

As I looked at what happened here this morning, I identified these additional steps that I feel we must take to remedy the mistake that was made here.

Way in the back there. Yes, sir?

QUESTION: When do you submit investigation before to Japanese government? And are you going to talk with Minister Nakagawa today or the day after?

SEC. JOHANNS: Well, in terms of Minister Nakagawa, as you know, in Japan now it's the middle of the night. My hope is that we can talk soon, but a time has not been set. My contact was through the Ambassador's Office, and I did speak directly with the Ambassador. And again, I expressed to him our regret. This should not have happened, and I told him that. I also walked down the things that we were going to do to deal with this.

The other thing I would offer here in terms of your question about when the report will be issued, the word I would use is: "immediately." We want to make sure that we touch all the appropriate bases, but I understand their need for information. And my hope is that we can finalize that report immediately, put it in their hands, and then answer any questions that they might have.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: (off-mike)

SEC. JOHANNS: Again, my direction was: "immediately." Whether that happens this afternoon or tomorrow morning, but I want people on the ground in Japan to work directly with Japanese inspectors.


QUESTION: (off-mike)

SEC. JOHANNS: I do know enough about the situation to be able to inform you that this plant - this was their first shipment. Now, I can't tell you whether they had shipped into the Japanese marketplace before 2003, but I know that this was their first shipment.

I can also share with you that at least the documentation that I've looked at, it appears that somebody who is experienced with that documentation would understand that the vertebral column was still attached to that meat. And the person who certified it did certify it, and for whatever reason just did not connect to the fact that the vertebral column needed to be removed before it arrived in Japan.

What I would say is this: with the assistance of Japan and with the work of the United States and the additional requirements that I intend to put in place, I feel very, very confident in the safety of U.S. beef and feel very, very confident in terms of meeting the requirements.

This just simply should not have happened. And I don't want to mince words about that. I'm very unhappy about it. It's a situation where very, very clearly our inspectors should have caught this. And I'm going to do everything I can to make sure that that doesn't happen again.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: - action took place, was it a visual inspection only? How long did that inspection might have taken?

SEC. JOHANNS: That I - those questions I just can't answer. I'm just not, I'm just not far along enough in the investigation to be able to respond to that.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Japan's government decided to reject, to halt the import of U.S. beef. Do you think this reaction is over-reacted?

SEC. JOHANNS: I do not believe so at all. You know, I've been in situations where we've made decisions about imports into our country from other countries where we felt requirements were not being met, and we have acted. In some cases we have taken the same sort of action where we would close borders.

What we always do after that is, we work with the country to make sure that they have in place the mechanism, if you will, to meet our requirements. And so, no, I would not say that at all. My attitude is: this problem has been identified; we're going to do everything we can to fix the problem.

Maybe one more question, and then I'll move on - if there is one.

Okay. Thank you, everybody.