Press Conference with USDA Acting Under Secretary Charles Lambert

Dr. Charles Lambert
Acting Under Secretary of Agriculture for Marketing and Regulatory Programs
US Embassy, Tokyo

March 29, 2006

DR. LAMBERT: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to meet and visit with you today. We have just concluded a day-and-a-half of discussions with officials from the Japanese government. From our viewpoint, this is another step along the path towards resumption of trade or lifting of the suspension of proceedings that allowed imports of U.S. beef into Japan. We were here primarily as part of the process following the Jan. 20 incident. The secretary committed to issuing a thorough and complete report in a timely manner. We have done that. We have responded to questions in a written format, but there were still some lingering issues, some gaps in the information that the government of Japan wanted us to come and address. So we have been discussing for the last two days or day and a half those additional issues. You could say from the meetings that this has been a very thorough and very complete discussion.

We came with the intent to be transparent, and I think that we have achieved that. Both sides did reach an understanding, I think, as to the cause of the incident. The U.S. side - we explained the additional measures that have been taken to prevent a recurrence of incidents like this in the future. The secretary had announced some of those measures early on. We have implemented additional measures based on the recommendations from the report of the investigation of the incident, and then based on our discussions here the last two days we have reached agreement to additional measures or clarifications of those measures. We are moving forward. Where we go from here, in kind of a forward-looking manner, the Japanese side will explain the situation to consumers here in Japan. We view this as part of the communication and outreach program, and in fact this event today I view as part of the U.S. role in that process. We are available. We'll continue to work to explain to Japanese consumers the measures that we have taken, the reasons that we are absolutely certain that U.S. beef is safe, the interlocking measures that we already had in place, and then these new additional measures that we have implemented to ensure that incidents like this won't occur in the future. While the Japanese side is discussing with their consumers, the U.S. side will implement the measures that we've agreed to implement, and we will audit the plants to verify that those measures have been implemented, and then we will go on to future steps that will lead to the resumption of trade. I would say that the talks, while they were very thorough and very in-depth, were conducted in a very constructive and forward-looking manner, and we look forward to continuing to work to regain consumer confidence, to reestablish ourselves in this market, and to resolve the issues with the Japanese government that it takes to regain access to this market, and we look forward to the conclusion of that process. With that, I'd be glad to address questions.

QUESTION: Richard Smith for Capital Press of Oregon and Lifestyle Weekly of Texas. Sir, will you please tell us what are the additional measures you have agreed upon?

DR. LAMBERT: Along the lines of communications - increased communications between the Food Safety Inspection Service and the Agricultural Marketing Service. AMS is the ones who manage the export verification programs. We have agreed to communicate between AMS and FSIS when a plant requests to be added to the list. In the initial process, we inform the Food Safety Inspection Service of that activity. When the plant is audited, the Food Safety Inspection Service will be included in that audit. And then the Food Safety Inspection Service has to confirm that that inspector in the plant knows about the EV program and knows that that plant has an export verification program before AMS will list that program on the Web. We have also added what we would call positive product lists to the process. Prior to these changes, basically we listed the products that had to be removed from beef in order to be eligible for export; we would call that the negative list, I guess. We listed all of the tissues that would be removed from product as to be eligible for export to Japan. Now each plant will have a list of approved cuts that that plant will be eligible to ship to Japan. The export certificate will then be compared to that list of eligible products, and there will be a second signature or a second verification that in fact all of the cuts on that export certificate are eligible for export. There are a number of additional measures, but it would be too long to go into detail here. But those are two of the things that will definitely improve the coordination, definitely help assure that these incidents won't happen in the future.

QUESTION: How does that - what did you say - when it's time for the export permit to be stamped, the exported parts will be verified by the certifier?

DR. LAMBERT: Yes, when a company exports product to a country, they list the cuts that are included in that shipment. In the new system, that export certificate will be sent to the Agricultural Marketing Service, who will compare the list of products on the export certificate to the list of approved cuts from that plant to make sure that all of those cuts are eligible to be exported to a country. Then the Agricultural Marketing Service will sign off that, yes, those cuts are eligible. They then send that certificate back to the Food Safety Inspection Service, who is the signing veterinarian that says that this product is safe and wholesome and also then, based on the AMS certification, meets the requirements of the importing country. I should add, we're doing this not only for Japan but for all of the export markets that have export verification programs from the U.S. with the exception of the two NAFTA countries. We are harmonized essentially in North America with Canada and Mexico, so both of those countries have agreed to stay with the one-signature process. But the rest of the markets, we will have that extra step of verification in the process.

QUESTION: Mayumi Negishi with The Japan Times. I just want to confirm, the measures that you just mentioned are the ones that the USDA promised in its response to Japan earlier. Is that correct? And whether any additional measures agreed on in the talks yesterday?

DR. LAMBERT: There were additional measures, additional training and auditing procedures that were agreed to here, primarily along the lines of the Agricultural Marketing Service of ways - this is a kind of continual improvement process. We are very confident that the criteria that we used to evaluate those plants were adequate at the time they were implemented, but we learn as we go along, and in retrospect there are some additional measures that we agreed to that will strengthen that program and assure that the plant is doing what they've committed to do.

QUESTION: My name is Takagi with Mainichi newspaper. The response was submitted, and then in this meeting additional measures were added to the response and the detailed discussion took place, I think, according to your explanation. What was not written in the response? What kind of additional measures were discussed and agreed upon? This is the question I would like to ask. Thank you.

DR. LAMBERT: As I indicated, it's agreeing to not only during the audit process interview the mainline inspectors but also include workers in the interviews to make sure that there's a common understanding within those plants of the criteria that those markets need to meet. And there are other measures that will help verify that the cuts that are on the list are cuts that are eligible to be exported to the importing country, and the second signature. So those are the primary measures that are and will be in place as early as the third of April. Those measures are all listed on the AMS Web site - are the ones that have been in place, and as I said we've agreed to add these other measures that were agreed to here.

QUESTION: Perhaps you have misunderstood my question, but I'm asking for the measures which are not cited at the website of AMS. I think that what you have responded to me now is something that is already in the report, which has been made public. But the gist of my question is whether new additional measures have been determined as the result of the course of the day and a half talks held at this time. That was my question.

DR. LAMBERT: There have been additional measures. I don't have the list of those measures right here in front of me, but as I said, we have agreed to do those measures. We will work with the plants to ensure that those measures are put into place and then re-audit the plants to verify that those measures are in place.

QUESTION: Catherine Makino, Voice of America. What's the time frame when you think that the ban will be lifted since you both agreed to implement?

DR. LAMBERT: There is no date-certain timeline. I think we've agreed to general next steps in the process. As I said, the government of Japan will do their communication with consumers. We will implement the measures that we committed to implement and audit the plants to verify that. Then there will be additional discussions as to next steps. So there is no absolute date certain, but this is consistent with the stepwise process of moving forward towards reopening reestablishment of trade.

QUESTION: My name is Yamada from Nihon Nogyo Shimbun. It means that the government of Japan showed understanding towards the additional measures which have been determined and will enter the stage of communications, meaning that the government of Japan has given consent to the additional measures, feeling that they were inadequate? Would that be the correct understanding of the situation?

DR. LAMBERT: The discussions - we did reach, I think, consensus on the additional measures. As I said, we will go home and implement those measures. We will continue discussions with Japanese officials as we go into those audits. But essentially we have agreed on the measures that need to be implemented to reestablish trade. The first process is for us to verify those, and then we'll sit down and discuss next steps to conclude the process.

QUESTION: Nishikawa with Asahi newspaper. Once again for clarification, in your discussion with the Japanese government with respect to additional measures, you said that you agreed on those additional measures. Now with respect to the measures that will be needed in the future, did you get an agreement from the Japanese government that there would be no additional measures?

DR. LAMBERT: I think we're in the final discussion of those stages. The next step for us will be to supply a checklist of the measures as our auditors go back into those plants that they will audit to verify are in place. Those measures will include the traditional audits, the traditional checklist we've had. They will include the measures that the secretary announced immediately following the incident. They will include the measures that were recommended in the audit report, and they will include any of the measures that we've agreed to here lately. So we will supply the full checklist of those measures. We will have reached consensus with the government of Japan before we do those audits. We want to make sure when we do those audits that we've covered everything that is an issue of concern to make sure that we are covering everything that's agreed to. So there will be a verification step in there between what we've agreed to now and before we start the audits to make sure that we are covering all the bases during the course of those audits.

QUESTION: Watanuki from NHK. You were able to reach a certain agreement between the two governments, and the government of Japan will provide communications to the consumers. Towards early resumption of beef imports, what does the U.S. government hope that the Japanese government will be able to do?

DR. LAMBERT: Of course, our hope is sooner better than later. We would settle for tomorrow. We have to be realistic. We're working to move through this in a stepwise manner, and our objective is to resume trade or lift the suspension of trade just as soon as is possible, so were doing everything that we can to implement these measures. I might clarify a little bit - the measures that primarily were added relate primarily to training and auditing of plant personnel to make sure that they understand the export requirements. Part of the interviews in the investigative report - at least some of the plant employees claim not to understand the full measures, so the additional measures that we've committed to here primarily relate to training and auditing plant personnel to make sure that they do understand that. And as I indicated, the fact that we have a list from that plant that states the products that they are eligible to export will be another indication that those employees have to understand that in order to issue that list.

QUESTION: I'm sorry, I'm going back over the same thing again, but just to clarify: So at the two-day meeting this week, there were no new questions on technical issues that the Japanese government raised that you have to go back to the U.S. to discuss and then bring back to the Japanese side to give an explanation of measures that you plan take for them? I mean, have all the technical questions that the Japanese asked been cleared?

DR. LAMBERT: I would say yes. There are always more questions, I'm sure, as the government of Japan does the consumer outreach and communication, that the questions will come up, that they will come back to us for clarification. But as far as the remedial measures, I think we've essentially agreed to those. As I said, we'll provide a comprehensive checklist of those measures and get concurrence from the government of Japan before we move forward. But based on my understanding of where we are now, it's my understanding that we have addressed all of those concerns and have essentially agreed on all the measures that will be put in place.

We took the government of Japan's suggestions. We will consider others. But as I said, once we start the audits we want to make sure that all the measures that are issues of concern are in place before we begin those re-verification audits.

QUESTION: Kawakami from Tokyo Shimbun. From the Japanese side, have you come up with any suggestions or recommendations with regard to measures to prevent the recurrence of this incident? Were there such recommendations given?

DR. LAMBERT: Yes. Again, the recommendations primarily relate to training and understanding by plant personnel, auditing, maybe more in-depth probing of their knowledge of the certification requirements or the export requirements. So those are the main types of additional measures that we agreed to.

The agreement that was reached - the U.S. does have a system of interlocking measures to assure the safety and the wholesomeness of beef in the US, for U.S. consumers. In the agreement to regain access to Japan, we did agree to an additional set of measures, and those are the measures that are still in place. The additional measures are basically ways to ensure that those specifications are being met so that we do not have another incident, or at least to absolutely minimize, to the extent humanly possible, the chance of another incident for a product that is not on the eligible list to end up in this market and cause the great disruption that came about from the January 20th incident.

QUESTION: When you look back at how much trust U.S. beef has lost among Japanese consumers, do you think it may have been cheaper in the long run to have agreed to do full testing for all exports to the U.S. for, like, a year?

DR. LAMBERT: I think our position on 100% testing has not changed. Our position has always been that this is a surveillance test, that we should do that to determine if we have the disease, and if we have it to determine the prevalence of the disease in the herd. We have had an enhanced surveillance program in place since June 1, 2004. We've now tested some 667,000 high-risk animals, and we found these two old, adult cows in the herd. So we know, I think, very clearly that the incidence of BSE in the US herd is exceedingly, extremely low. From our viewpoint, surveillance is to prove that point, to determine if we have the disease and if we have it, the extent that we have it. It's scientifically commonly known that animals younger than 30 months do not exhibit the disease, are not reactive on this test, and that this has never been a food-safety test. It's always been to test those older high-risk animals to determine if we have the disease.

QUESTION: Shingo Ito from AFP. When are you going to meet with the Japanese side next time?

DR. LAMBERT: There have been no dates set. The next steps are for us to implement and do the audits. Then I think there will be discussions about a meeting date or next steps that would follow once those measures are implemented on our side and once the communications with consumers are completed on the Japanese side.

QUESTION: Nishikawa with Asahi newspaper. Once again for clarification: with respect to the food checklist to be submitted, what is to be checked? Now, in today's meeting with the Japanese side, you made an agreement on the items to be checked. So with respect to additional items for checking, is there room for more additional checking items to be emerging between the two sides in the coming period?

DR. LAMBERT: We took the recommendations from the government of Japan. They have indicated and we have indicated that once we supply that checklist, if there are items that they want to pursue, that we will discuss that with them. As I said, we really want to make sure that we have the full list of items of concern before we begin these audits, so there will be, I think, there's room for additional measures if both sides so agree.

QUESTION: Takagi from Mainichi Shimbun. I have three clarifications for the sake of confirmation. First of all, the training and audit for the personnel of the facilities - which parts can be exported, which parts cannot be exported, and the processing plant personnel - to what extent they have understanding of what cuts can be exported and what cuts cannot be exported. Was that suggestion or proposal from the Japanese side or from the U.S. side? Moving on to my second question, you talked about 100% testing, all cattle testing, and you have also talked about surveillance. Concerning 100% testing, in a U.S. processing plant, if they decide on a voluntary basis as a private company that they want to conduct 100% testing, I think there is a U.S. company which has filed suit. However, U.S. government will not change its position that such 100% testing should not be conducted. And you said that enforced surveillance has started from June 1, 2004. Will this be continued for some time, or will this be completed or suspended sometime in the near future? So these are my three questions, please.

DR. LAMBERT: I would say the additional measures were kind of consensus measures. Both sides agreed. Japan, the government officials, expressed what some of their concerns were, and then we mutually discussed what measures might help reduce those concerns, and so that's a lot of how these discussions went. It wasn't "prescribe and accept" as much as it was, "this is our concern, now what can we do to remove those concerns or reduce those concerns?"

Regarding surveillance, I said the enhanced surveillance has been in place since June 1, 2004, but actually, we've been testing animals in the U.S. since 1990, and have had a long record of testing the U.S. herd. So we have a really good knowledge about the extent of the disease in the U.S. herd. We have agreed to continue the enhanced surveillance for the time being. We are doing analysis of the data from the enhanced surveillance program. We want to get those data fully analyzed, have peer reviews, get consensus on the findings of those before we make any decisions about the future of the enhanced surveillance program. And we have committed to our trading partners before we make any changes in that program to go back to a maintenance level of surveillance which is consistent with OIE guidelines, that we would consult with our trading partners and that we would give them forewarning or foreknowledge before we made a move like that.

QUESTION: Sorry, I think there is one question remaining with respect to the litigation over the 100% testing. There was a private company in the United States which has filed suit with the U.S. government with regard to voluntary measures on 100% testing.

DR. LAMBERT: You know, the agreement that we have with the government of Japan does not mention 100% testing. We have said that that would be a misuse of the test. Our objective from these discussions is to get back to the agreement that is in place that has been suspended following the January 20th incident, and that's the agreement that's in place that we're working to get back to. At some stage, the original memorandum of understanding indicated that we would begin consultative or consultations on moving that age up to 30 months. Obviously our first objective is to get trade reestablished in a problem-free manner here to get some track record behind this to have ongoing commerce before we even think about next steps beyond that. So right now, we're focusing on next steps to get the suspension lifted, to get product moving based on the agreement that has been in place - a product from animals 20 months of age and younger - and the full set of export measures that were agreed to prior to the opening, and then the additional measures to verify that those criteria are being met that have been reached since January 20th.

QUESTION: I don't think my question has been correctly communicated to you. A U.S. processing plant voluntarily conducting 100% testing - what is the position of the US government? Is there a possibility that you are willing to recognize it and admit it, or is your position not to admit it? That is my question.

DR. LAMBERT: Our position has been and is that we would not recognize that option.

QUESTION: Prior to the beef trade resumption, whether there would be a pre-audit conducted by the Japanese government before the resumption? Was this discussed in the consultations at this time? And if so, what will be the standard applied for such a pre-audit?

DR. LAMBERT: I think the secretary has indicated a willingness to invite Japanese officials to come and inspect plants prior to the resumption of trade or the lifting of the suspension. So we are willing to receive those auditors or those inspectors at such time as they are ready to come. Obviously the criteria that they would utilize during those inspections or verifications would be up to the government of Japan and are not predetermined at this stage. We have not had any discussions on those.

QUESTION: Just a scheduling question: once both sides decide on that full checklist, how long will the audit take, and what's the step after that?

DR. LAMBERT: From our viewpoint, the audits take somewhere between four and eight hours per plant. There are 36, 37 plants. But we do have any one of a number of auditors - 12 or 15 auditors - so it could take up to two weeks to do those audits, depending on the ability to schedule in those plants.

QUESTION: And after that?

DR. LAMBERT: After that, I think we come back together and discuss after the Japanese side has had their communications program with consumers. They will get feedback, we will have implemented those, then we will come back together and say, okay, what are the next steps? What are the next conditions we need to reach? Our objective, obviously, will be: at what stage can we get the verification teams from Japan in those plants and get the audits completed so that trade can resume? But there will be discussions following those next measures, so we don't have a complete roadmap at this stage.

QUESTION: Kawakami from Tokyo Shimbun. In the United States, you have the traceability systems up until 2009. You are aiming to introduce the system by the year 2009. But in the consultations at this time, was there a request filed from the Japanese side with regard to this system, or was there any proposal from the United States by bringing forward the schedule for the traceability system?

DR. LAMBERT: It has not been a topic for discussion in any of these discussions that we've had.

Thank you all for your time and interest, and I look forward to further discussions. Thank you.