September 12, 2005

Japan decision on U.S. beef imports may be near

By Aya Takada

TOKYO (Reuters) - The head of a panel considering whether
to reopen the Japanese market to U.S. beef said on Monday he
would prepare a draft report on U.S. beef safety by the panel's
next meeting, a comment that suggests a decision is near.

The date of the next meeting has not been set, but the
panel usually meets once or twice in a month.

The panel, a subcommittee of Japan's Food Safety
Commission, met on Monday for the sixth time since May when the
Japanese government asked it to rule on the safety of U.S. beef
and beef offal, which have been banned in Japan since December
2003 when a case of mad cow disease was discovered in the
United States.

"I hope we can have a discussion based on a draft report at
the next meeting," Yasuhiro Yoshikawa, the chairman of the
12-member subcommittee, said at the end of the meeting.

Without approval from the commission, an independent group
of experts who assess food safety, the government cannot
implement an agreement made last October with the United States
to resume imports of U.S. beef and beef products.

Before the ban, Japan was the top importer of American
beef, with imports valued at $1.4 billion in 2003.

Almost a year ago, Japan agreed with the United States to
resume imports of beef from cattle aged 20 months or younger,
which are considered to be at low risk from mad cow disease,
formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

The countries also agreed that specified risk materials
(SRM), such as bovine heads and spinal cords, must be removed
from animals of all ages.

But Tokyo has insisted that shipments cannot resume until
the commission declares that U.S. beef to be exported to Japan
under the agreed conditions is as safe as domestic meat.


U.S. lawmakers have expressed growing frustration with
Japan's slowness in reopening its market, and some have
proposed that Washington consider trade sanctions.

Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human version of
BSE, is thought to be spread by eating contaminated meat. It
has caused more than 140 deaths worldwide, including one in

Yoshikawa also said the subcommittee could speed up
discussions if the number of U.S. meat packers who can meet the
export conditions set by the October agreement is limited.

In the United States, cattle slaughtered at 25 facilities
of four major meat-packers represent more than 80 percent of
all the slaughtered animals. But these plants account for only
3.5 percent of all the U.S. meat-packing facilities.

"If U.S. beef shipments to Japan will come from a limited
number of facilities, we can easily check their safety. But if
not, it would be very difficult to do so," Yoshikawa said.

An official of Japan's Health Ministry said the October
agreement did not exclude small U.S. packers as possible beef
exporters to Japan. However, he added, Japan imported U.S. beef
shipped from about 100 facilities before the trade ban.

To accelerate discussion over U.S. beef, the subcommittee
may also have to make risk assessment on U.S. beef offal
separately, as these parts may be at higher BSE risk, Yoshikawa

In the fiscal year to March 31, 2003 Japan imported from
the United States 240,144 tonnes of beef and 80,301 tonnes of
beef offal which include tongue, liver, stomach and intestines.

It is also impossible to determine if beef offal is taken
from cattle aged 20 months or younger unless it is from animals
with production records, Satoshi Kai, another subcommittee
member, said at Monday's meeting.

Under the October agreement, the United States can verify
the age of cattle based on production records or the meat
grading system, as about only 10 percent of U.S. cattle carry
documents on their age.

As for animals without documents, the United States can
export their meat to Japan if they are graded "A40," which
refers mainly to cattle aged 12-17 months.