U.S. resuming beef sales to Japan after ban lifted

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

WASHINGTON -- Hours after Japan ended a trade ban imposed because of mad cow disease, U.S. ranchers and meatpackers began rounding up their first shipment of beef to Japan.

The shipment is to be sent Saturday from Denver, but the industry cautioned that trade will resume slowly.

Japan's market, once the biggest for American beef, was worth $1.4 billion before mad cow disease turned up in the United States in December 2003. The discovery prompted Japan and dozens of other countries to stop importing U.S. beef.

"Just to regain that market share we had before will take some time," Missouri cattle rancher Mike John, president-elect of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said Monday.

Earlier this month, John helped organize an auction of 7,000 cattle in Joplin, Mo., whose beef would qualify for shipment to Japan. New rules limit beef destined for Japan to animals 20 months or younger. New paperwork and tracking requirements also were imposed.

Beyond that, Japanese consumers will need convincing, said North Dakota rancher Dick Tokach. "It's going to be another selling campaign to assure Japanese people that beef in the U.S. is safe," Tokach said.

A survey by Japan's Kyodo news agency found about 75 percent of Japanese unwilling to eat U.S. beef because of mad cow fears. Twenty-one percent said they would consume it.

Japan lifted its ban late Sunday, and the United States responded Monday morning by agreeing to allow the importation of Japanese beef. The U.S. appetite for Japanese beef, primarily expensive Kobe steaks, is more of a niche market worth an estimated $808,000 annually.

The first shipment from Denver, organized by the U.S. Meat Export Federation, is expected to arrive Sunday.

Among other companies, meatpacker Swift & Co. is striving to have products in the shipment, a company spokesman said.

In the meantime, Japanese inspectors will be visiting plants to certify them, according to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns.

"We know of many plants across the United States who have been anticipating this day," Johanns said Monday from Hong Kong, where he is participating in global trade talks. "They are prepared to deal with the export verification requirements, and so I'm optimistic. I think the industry will adjust very quickly."

In an interview with The Associated Press, Johanns said, "I think we'll see plants that are given the green light yet this week."

Even before taking office last January, Johanns promised frustrated senators during his confirmation hearing that lifting Japan's ban would be his first priority. Lawmakers had repeatedly threatened Japan with retaliatory measures.

Lawmakers pressed Monday for Japan to further ease restrictions by allowing beef from cattle that has been slaughtered at up to 30 months of age, as called for under international animal health guidelines. The age cutoff is because infection levels from mad cow disease are believed to rise with age.

"It's critical that the Japanese allow free and fair access to their consumers who hunger for Montana beef," said Montana GOP Rep. Dennis Rehberg, who is a cattle rancher.

U.S. officials called on other Asian countries, including Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore, to follow Japan's lead.

"Now 70 countries are open to U.S. beef," said U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman, who was with Johanns in Hong Kong. "I encourage other trading partners to move forward expeditiously to normalize trade in beef."

Since finding mad cow disease in a Washington state heifer in December 2003, the U.S. confirmed a second case in June in a Texas-born cow. Japan has confirmed 21 cases of mad cow disease.

Mad cow disease is the common name for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, a degenerative nerve disease in cattle.

In people, eating contaminated meat products is linked to a rare but fatal disease called variant Creutzfeldt Jakob disease. More than 150 people have died of the disease, mostly in the United Kingdom, where there was an outbreak in the 1980s and 1990s.

On the Net

Agriculture Department: http://www.usda.gov

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