Japan, US experts discuss worries on beef trade
Tokyo, Mar 28: Japan and the United States started two days of talks TOday at which Washington will seek to dispel concerns about a US inspection system for mad cow disease and move Tokyo a step closer to lifting a ban on American beef imports.
The expert-level meeting in Tokyo was called at the request of the United States, which wants to press for the reopening of the Japanese market to US beef.
But Japanese officials believe it is too early to discuss the timing of an import resumption, feeling that questions about the US beef inspection system remain unresolved.
Japan suspended US beef imports on January 20, just a month after it partially lifted a two-year-old ban on US beef imposed over mad cow disease fears, when Japanese inspectors discovered banned spinal material in a veal shipment from New York.
The shipment has deepened concerns among Japanese consumers that US beef could be tainted with materials that could cause a variant of the fatal brain-wasting disease in humans.
''We are here today with technical experts to answer any unanswered questions, with an eye to lifting the suspension and resuming trade,'' Charles Lambert, acting undersecretary for marketing at the US Department of Agriculture, said at the beginning of the meeting.
''We absolutely believe US beef is safe,'' he added.
USDA has said the ineligible shipment was an isolated incident and does not indicate faults in the overall US beef processing, inspection or export systems.
But the Japanese government still has doubts.
''The incident has raised a question among Japanese that it is not only the problem of one company but a more serious issue that relates to the US government's functions to check them,'' Masato Kitera, deputy director-general economic affairs at Japan's Foreign Ministry, said at the meeting.
The US government must regain trust from Japanese consumers about the system to check if exports meet conditions agreed by the two governments to ensure the safety of US beef, he added.
''Otherwise, US beef will not be accepted by Japanese consumers even if the Japanese government allows imports to restart,'' Kitera said.
It has become a thorny issue in relations between Japan and its closest ally. Before the initial ban, Japan was the top importer of US beef, buying 240,000 tonnes valued at 1.4 billion dollars in 2003.
Last December, Japan lifted a ban on imports from the US of beef and beef offal from cattle aged up to 20 months, on condition that specified risk materials that could spread mad cow disease, such as spinal cords, were removed before shipment.
The decision was made despite the reluctance of Japanese consumer groups and opposition lawmakers, who urged the government to keep the ban because US safeguards against mad cow disease are not as strict as those in Japan.
Mad cow disease, formally called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is believed to be caused by malformed proteins and spread through infected feed.
The human variant, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, is thought to be spread by eating contaminated meat. It has caused more than 160 deaths worldwide, including one in Japan.
The Japanese government, under fire from opposition critics who say it lifted its initial ban too quickly under US pressure, is cautious about an early resumption of beef imports.