December 12, 2005

Japan eases ban on US, Canadian beef imports

By Aya Takada

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan on Monday eased a two-year-old ban
on American beef imposed because of mad cow disease, averting a
trade war with Washington where lawmakers had threatened
retaliation unless beef trade resumed by mid-December.

In line with a recommendation from Japan's Food Safety
Commission, the government said it lifted a ban on imports of
beef and beef offal from U.S. and Canadian cattle aged up to 20
months, on condition that risk materials that could transmit
mad cow disease are removed before the meat is shipped to

Japan will keep a ban on beef from older American cattle as
they may be at higher risk from the brain-wasting disease,
formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

"We have eased the ban because the U.S. and Canadian
governments told us they would accept the conditions,"
Mitsuhiro Miyakoshi, senior vice minister of the Agriculture
Ministry, told a news conference on Monday.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, who is in Hong
Kong to attend a ministerial meeting of the World Trade
Organization, said U.S. beef shipments to Japan could resume

"We've heard that beef could be headed toward Japan
certainly within the next week to 10 days," Johanns told

Japan banned U.S. beef and beef products in December 2003
after the first U.S. case of BSE was found in Washington state.

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

Japan banned imports of Canadian beef and beef products in
May 2003 after the first Canadian case of BSE was confirmed.

Canada was a minor beef exporter to Japan, while the United
States supplied about a quarter of Japan's total beef demand of
930,000 tonnes in 2003.

The ban led to anger and frustration in the United States,
where lawmakers proposed retaliatory tariffs on Japanese
products if it was not lifted by mid-December.

Australia, currently a dominant beef exporter to Japan,
expects a decline in beef sales to Japan as U.S. beef is about
to return to the Japanese market.

"There's no doubt it will hit sales, but it is not clear
yet by how much," Meat & Livestock Australia senior analyst
Peter Weeks said.

Australian beef imports to Japan nearly doubled to A$2.5
billion after Japan halted U.S. beef imports.


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

Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human version of
BSE, is thought to be spread by eating contaminated meat. It
has caused more than 150 deaths worldwide, including one in

Miyakoshi said the Japanese government would send
inspectors to the United States and Canada for about 10 days
from Tuesday to check whether U.S. and Canadian plants
designated as beef suppliers to Japan meet the requirements.

He said the Japanese inspectors would check whether workers
in such plants properly remove specified risk materials, such
as bovine heads and spinal cords, from beef bound for Japan.

The inspectors would also check whether the plants keep
beef shipments to Japan completely separate from shipments to
other markets, and whether they confirm the age of cattle based
on production records or the beef grading system, he added.

"In case violations of the requirements occur repeatedly,
we will take appropriate actions, including possible suspension
of beef imports from the United States and Canada," Miyakoshi

Asked about a request by the U.S. beef industry to raise
the cattle age limit to 30 months, Miyakoshi said the ministry
had no plan to relax the conditions for American beef imports.

A Canadian provincial farm official visiting Taiwan said he
was pleased by the Japanese move but added the 20-month age
limit was unnecessary.

"The decision to open a border based on anything other than
under 30 months really doesn't have any basis in science," Doug
Horner, Alberta's agriculture minister, told an American
Chamber of Commerce event in Taipei.

In an attempt to avoid further friction with the U.S. beef
industry and the government, Japan's Agriculture Ministry will
also revise rules for applying emergency tariffs on beef

"We will revise the rule in order to lower chances for
emergency beef tariffs next year," a ministry official said.

Under current rules, Japan can raise import tariffs on beef
if quarterly imports jump 17 percent from a year earlier.

Under the revised rules, effective for a year starting next
April, the comparisons will be with the corresponding quarters
of fiscal 2002/03 and 2003/04, just before Japan banned U.S.
beef, rather than with the previous year.

Under rules adopted by the World Trade Organization, Japan
is allowed to raise import tariffs as an emergency step to
protect domestic beef producers from a rise in imports.

(Additional reporting by Chikafumi Hodo and Miho Yoshikawa

Tokyo, James Regan in Sydney, and Doug Palmer in Hong Kong)