Inspector Error Led to New Japan Ban of U.S. Beef, Johanns Says

By Kathryn McConnell
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - The failure of a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspector to understand fully Japan's import requirements for veal was the primary reason Japan halted accepting all U.S. beef, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns says.

Meeting January 24 with representatives of the U.S. meat packing and processing industry and reporters in Washington, Johanns said fault for the mistake in shipping to Japan packaged veal containing parts of cow vertebrae also lies with the processor, which has since been taken off USDA's list of businesses approved to ship their product to Japan. (See related article.)

While the vertebral material is not considered a food safety hazard, according to U.S. and international standards because it was from an animal younger than 20 months, the shipment violated the U.S. trade agreement with Japan, which specified it would accept no meat product containing any such material.

Japan, which imported U.S. beef worth $1.4 billion in 2003 before it imposed a previous ban, only recently had reopened its market based on the agreement.

The initial ban was imposed after a single case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was discovered in the United States in a cow imported from Canada.

In early 2004, the United States began significantly to increase its inspections of cattle at slaughter and to institute an animal identification program to help prevent the spread of any potential further cases of BSE - or mad-cow disease - in the United States.

Johanns outlined extra steps USDA is taking to strengthen its system for ensuring compliance with trade agreements involving beef exports.

"We must ensure that mistakes are not repeated," he said.

Two parts of USDA - the Food Safety Inspection Service and the office of department's inspector general - are conducting a "thorough investigation" of the Japan export incident, which was reported to USDA January 20, Johanns said.

A report of the investigation - requested by Japan - will be issued soon, he said.

Johanns said all USDA staff involved in verifying compliance to trade agreements regarding beef exports will receive additional training.

Such additional training also will be provided to staff at beef processing plants that export, he said.

Agriculture Under Secretary J.B. Penn and a USDA team have been sent to Japan to meet with government officials to review all shipments currently in storage there and to reassure officials of stepped-up compliance efforts, Johanns said.

"This is an opportunity for us to very aggressively address the issue ... and start again to re-establish trust," he said.  "[Consumer] trust is enormously important."

USDA also is reaching out to assure other export markets the United States is acting "swiftly" and "firmly" to ensure that all USDA meat inspectors and private-sector processors have the knowledge to ensure compliance with trade agreements, he said.

Overall, U.S. beef trade is worth billions of dollars a year, Johanns said.

A transcript of Johanns' remarks is on the USDA Web site.