September 20, 2005

Senate bans Japan beef imports amid mad cow row

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate voted twice on
Tuesday to keep shipments of Japan's Kobe beef out of the
United States until Tokyo ends its ban on American beef,
imposed 19 months ago as a precaution against mad cow disease.

Senators said the votes were a signal of frustration with
Japan, traditionally the No. 1 customer for U.S. beef exports.
The U.S. cattle industry says it loses $100 million each month
the market is closed.

"It's just unfair," said Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson,
decrying the continued ban as unjustified dawdling. "It is time
to move beyond soft talk to harder talk."

A delicacy, Kobe beef comes from Wagyu cattle massaged with
sake and fed a diet enriched with beer. Japan shipped $800,000
of the beef annually to U.S buyers before the ban.

Japan says the ban on American beef is in the hands of an
independent food safety commission.

A subcommittee leader on the commission said last week that
a draft report on American beef safety may be discussed soon
but also cited difficulties in checking U.S. plants. Cattle
slaughtered at 25 facilities of four major meatpacking
companies represent more than 80 percent of all slaughtered
animals, but the plants account for only 3.5 percent of all
U.S. meatpacking facilities.

Prior to the ban, Japan imported beef from about 100 U.S.
meatpacking plants.

On a 72-26 roll call vote, senators added language to a
U.S. Agriculture Department funding bill to bar USDA from
issuing rules allowing imports of Kobe beef unless Japan fully
opened its market to U.S. beef.

The USDA opposed the amendment as a possible obstacle to
trade rather than a spur.

"The Agriculture Secretary (Mike Johanns) feels that if we
were to delay we would just give Japan additional reason to
delay moving forward and allowing our beef there," said USDA
spokeswoman Terri Teuber.

"It would be very unfortunate if we ended up in a situation
where they had gone through their process but then further
delayed allowing U.S. beef based on our delay. We're talking
about a huge quantity of American beef potentially entering
their market and a very small amount of Japanese beef coming

Senators also approved on a voice vote a nonbinding
resolution, offered by Colorado Republican Wayne Allard, to
keep out Japanese beef until U.S. beef again was shipped to

Neither item was included in the House version of the $100
billion funding bill for USDA and related agencies. A final,
compromise version of the bill must be written to iron out

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley said the
Senate's vote reflected "understandable frustration with
Japan's unreasonable delays" but added he did not support it.

"I don't support depriving the Department of Agriculture
with the funding it needs to make decisions based on sound
science even while we need to send a loud and clear message to
Japan about the need to reopen its beef market to U.S. exports
.. without delay," the Iowa Republican said in a statement.

Grassley met Japanese Ambassador Ryozo Kato late on Monday
to talk about removing the ban on imports of U.S. beef. He said
he would continue to keep pressure on the Japanese government.

U.S. cattle producers and their allies in Congress have
stepped up complaints against Japan with the approach of the
one-year anniversary on October 23 of a U.S.-Japan agreement on
a framework to resume trade. They say Japan now has ample proof
that U.S. beef is safe.

"They're using mad cow disease as an excuse for an embargo
against U.S. beef," said Allard.

Always fatal, mad cow disease, formally called bovine
spongiform encephalopathy, is believed to be caused by
malformed proteins and spread through infected feed.

People can contract a human version of the disease by
eating contaminated meats.