TOKYO, Mar 24: Japanese Agriculture Minister Shoichi Nakagawa said today beef trade rules between Japan and the United States won't be affected by a lawsuit filed by a US firm against the US government over mad cow testing.
Creekstone Farms Premium Beef LLC filed a suit earlier in the week against the US Agriculture Department for refusing to allow the Kansas company to voluntarily test its cattle for mad cow disease.
The company wants to test all its slaughter cattle for the fatal disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), so that it can prove to customers, especially in Japan, that its beef is safe.
In Japan all cattle slaughtered for food have been tested for BSE since October 2001 as a way of excluding infected animals from the food chain. After the central government dropped its blanket testing policy last August, all local governments have voluntarily continued universal testing to meet consumer demand.
Nakagawa said he understands Creekstone's eagerness to regain access to the Japanese market, which has been shut to American beef since Jan. 20 when Japanese inspectors discovered banned spinal material in a shipment of US veal.
The suspension came just a month after Japan partially lifted a two-year-old ban on US beef imposed over mad cow disease fears. Before the ban, Japan was the top importer of U.S. beef, buying 240,000 tonnes valued at 1.4 billion dollar in 2003.
But Nakagawa added that Japan cannot give preferential treatment to the company as the Japanese and US governments have already set beef trade rules that do not require Washington to conduct universal testing on slaughter cattle for BSE.
''We don't deny their efforts to adapt themselves to the Japanese system at a high cost, but how can we make exceptions of them?'' Nakagawa asked at a news conference. Under the beef trade agreement between the two governments, U.S. companies must remove specified risk materials that could spread mad cow disease, such as spinal cords, from cattle of all ages before the meat is shipped to Japan. They also cannot export beef from animals older than 20 months.
USDA has opposed private BSE testing of cattle, saying it is too costly and cannot be justified scientifically.
But consumer groups in the United States and Japan have applauded the action by Creekstone and urged Washington to allow the company to test all its cattle for mad cow disease.
''We hope this case will eventually force the U.S. government to tighten its rules over mad cow testing,'' said Hiroko Mizuhara, secretary general of the Consumers Union of Japan.
Currently the USDA is drawing up plans to scale down its mad cow testing programme that found two of the three U.S. cases of the disease, including one this month.
To press for the reopening of the Japanese market to U.S.
beef, USDA will send a technical team to Japan for a meeting with Japanese counterparts next week. Nakagawa said the ministry has not yet set the date for a meeting with USDA officials.
Nakagawa also said he wants USDA officials to fully answer Japanese questions about the veal shipment before they move a step closer to a possible resumption of U.S. beef imports.
''I hope we can have a meaningful meeting to move us forward,'' Nakagawa told reporters.
Japan has said it could not allow imports to restart until Washington found the cause of the violation and took measures to prevent a recurrence.
The Japanese government, under fire from opposition critics who say it lifted its initial ban too quickly under U.S.
pressure, is cautious about an early resumption of beef imports.