Chewing the fat on reopening Japan to U.S. beef

Published: Wednesday, January 14, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 13, 2004 at 11:32 p.m.
The debate was heated as representatives of a U.S. delegation from the Department of Agriculture squared off against a group of Japanese trade regulators Tuesday.
At issue, Japan's ban on all imports of U.S. beef after the brain-wasting disease bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, was found last month in a single cow in Washington state.
In this case, however, the debaters were third-year students in the University of Florida's College of Veterinary Medicine, and a $1 billion market was not hanging on the outcome.
Students in Paul Gibbs' elective course on emerging diseases tackled the topic of BSE with gusto, pairing off in two teams with two perspectives on mad cow disease and consumer confidence in the beef industry.
A third group representing an international panel of experts was charged with weighing the arguments. The question to be answered: Should Japan reopen its markets to U.S. beef?
Cast in the role of lead negotiator for the USDA, Matthew Schairer assured all involved that "our goal is transparency, and nothing less."
The USDA has established excellent surveillance programs and demonstrated in this single case that its testing is accurate, he said. In fact, the United States is now testing 45 times the number of animals than is standard in the international community.
"Should we test all animals?" he asked. That would cost the United States between $1.75 billion and $3 billion, and he contends it is not necessary. That's because 80 percent of U.S. beef cattle are sold for slaughter under 32 months of age, before the rogue proteins called prions which have been linked to BSE begin to turn up in the brain or spinal cord.
"We request that the Japanese delegation once again extend the privilege of trade in beef and beef products to the United States," Schairer closed.
Speaking in behalf of the Japanese, Christian Hofer said, "Within the limits of state-of-the-art science, we recognize that no test is perfect."
However, Hofer added, "even one case of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (linked to BSE in cattle) among the Japanese people is one case too many. The U.S. must take measures to ensure that its beef is 'BSE free.' "
Japan's demands included BSE testing of all beef products imported into that country and mandatory centralized tracking and identification systems for all U.S. cattle.
To maintain identity "from farm to fork," Hofer said, Japan will implement a 10-digit identification and tracing number on all beef it produces this year.
"Our consumer peace of mind must be restored before we can consider open trade again," he said. "We have a duty and responsibility to protect our people."
Gibbs, a professor of pathobiology in UF's College of Veterinary Medicine, noted that in real life, Japan has every right to close its borders to U.S. beef, "but it must be aware of the rules and regulations of the World Trade Organization if it is not to draw penalties elsewhere."
Then he turned the arguments over to the three-member panel of "international experts." Their conclusion: Team Japan had presented the most effective argument.
The United States, although it was responding to the threat of BSE, needed time to implement new policies that would limit the spread of the disease and guarantee the safety of the U.S. food supply, the judges concluded.
Without saying, public health and consumer confidence in beef was the ultimate goal for all parties involved, both sides agreed as the session concluded.
For the winning side in the classroom debate, there was a reward: The losers would treat them to a BSE-free burger.

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