U.S.-Japan Beef Trade Talks Simmer Along

By Susan Krause
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - Negotiators from the United States and Japan ended two-and-a half days of talks in Tokyo May 19 without reaching final agreement on conditions for the restoration of U.S. exports of beef and beef products to Japan, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Chuck Lambert, USDA's acting under secretary for agriculture, marketing and regulatory programs, met with reporters following the talks.  He said the Japanese government accepted an in-depth audit report prepared by the U.S. government, but the two sides did not establish a timeline for resolving the trade impasse, which has continued for four months.

The U.S. report included results of a review of 25 U.S. meat-processing plants that shipped beef products to Japan between December 12, 2005 - when Japan partially lifted a two-year ban on imports of U.S. beef - and January 19, 2006, when Japan reinstated that ban.  The report also included an audit of the 35 plants that are eligible to export to Japan under a USDA-administered Export Verification Program.

Japan first banned imports of U.S. beef in December 2003, when a case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or "mad cow" disease) was discovered in the United States.  After intensive discussions, Japan partially lifted that ban in December 2005, agreeing to accept imports of U.S. beef and beef products from cattle less than 20 months of age.  But it restored the ban after finding bone fragments in a shipment of veal one month later. (See related article.)

Lambert said the auditors had verified that the processing plants were implementing rules properly, including new measures imposed by Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns after the January incident. (See related article.)

"The result of those audits has shown that all product that was produced conformed to the requirements of Japan, and that the plants knew and understand and were meeting the requirements of the market for Japan," he said.

Some minor "procedural" issues must be corrected before the two sides can move forward, according to Lambert.  He said he expected these problems to be resolved before the end of May.

"We have a pathway," he said.  "The government of Japan will sort out its thoughts; they will conduct additional risk communication and get feedback from the public, and then a final agreement as to when and timing and extent of audits that will follow will take place."

The United States has proposed that Japan lift its suspension of the 35 plants, allowing all to resume shipments at the same time, with the end of June the preferred target date, Lambert said.

Japanese officials expressed doubt that the matter could be resolved so quickly, the acting under secretary said.

Lambert said the United States has done its part to resolve the matter, conducting a full investigation as soon as it became aware of the problem with the veal shipment, preparing a 475-page report, and making officials available to the government of Japan to respond to any additional questions. (See related article.)

"We have asked the Japanese government to move forward in an expedited fashion so that we can lift the suspension and resume trade," Lambert said.

He emphasized that the United States has implemented protective measures that far exceed international standards, such as those recommended by the World Animal Health Organization, in order to export to Japan.

"We have a saying in the U.S. that, 'where there's a will, there's a way,'" he said.  "We stand ready to work with our counterparts in Japan to help facilitate those audits so that trade can resume in a timely fashion."

For additional information on U.S. policy, see Trade and Economics and East Asia and the Pacific.

A transcript of the acting under secretary's press conference and the text of the audit report are available at the USDA Web site.