Japan resumes beef ban

Japan's Agriculture Ministry senior official Hirofumi Kugita, left, briefs reporters on a total halt to American beef imports during a press conference at the ministry in Tokyo Friday. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said Friday that Japan will completely halt imports of U.S. beef after a recent shipment was found to contain parts of cattle considered at risk for mad cow disease.

The Associated Press
Published: Friday, January 20, 2006 at 1:48 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 20, 2006 at 1:48 p.m.

Agriculture Department officials scrambled Friday to repair a delicate beef-trading relationship after Japan discovered a shipment containing bone that Asian countries consider at risk for mad cow disease.

Hours after Japan halted American beef imports, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns dispatched inspectors to Japan and sent extra inspectors to plants that sell meat to Japan. He also ordered unannounced inspections.

The government barred Brooklyn-based Atlantic Veal & Lamb, the plant that sent the shipment, from selling meat to Japan. Johanns said he would take action against the department inspector who cleared the shipment. The inspector should have noticed the problem on plant documents, Johanns said.

"This just simply should not have happened," Johanns said during a news conference at department headquarters in Washington.

Department officials said that for now, American beef is being held at Japanese ports until the United States completes a report on what happened, which Johanns intends to deliver "immediately."

Johanns said he would try to reassure other Asian countries that followed the lead of Japan, which six weeks ago ended a ban on American beef imposed after the discovery of mad cow disease in the United States in December 2003.

Exports of American beef were worth $3.9 billion in 2003; Japan alone was worth $1.4 billion. At the time, there were 95 countries that imported U.S. beef. The discovery prompted Japan and dozens of other countries to close their borders to American beef. Today there are 69 countries, not including Japan, that buy U.S. beef.

The tissue Japan found, spinal column from veal, is allowed in the American food supply because it comes from animals younger than 30 months of age. However, the agreement with Japan bars spinal column and other bone tissue.

The shipment was from veal calves younger than 6 months of age. The meat industry emphasized that Americans eat the same product with confidence. J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute, pointed out that mad cow disease has never been found in an animal that young.

Johanns commented just hours after Japan's prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, said in Tokyo that his country will block imports of American beef after a recent shipment was found that may contain material considered at risk for mad cow disease.

"This is a pity given that imports had just resumed," Koizumi told reporters. "I received the agriculture minister's report with his recommendation that the imports be halted and I think it is a good idea."

The latest announcement came as a jarring setback for the U.S. meat industry and Bush administration officials, happening just as U.S. officials were talking optimistically of selling more beef in Asia despite some lingering import restrictions.

At the White House, presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said: "USDA is taking steps to address this matter."

The Agriculture Department just Thursday had announced that Singapore officially ended a ban on American beef, following Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea, all of which reopened their markets in the past six weeks.

"This decision adds momentum to our goal of resuming normal beef trade throughout the world," Johanns said at the time.

But on Friday, Japan's agriculture minister said he believes U.S. meat producers have already violating the agreement that allowed American beef back into Japan. Agriculture Minister Shoichi Nakagawa recommended a total halt to American beef imports if officials confirm a recent U.S meat shipment contained material at risk for the disease, a ministry spokesman said.

Johanns had said earlier that U.S. officials would continue to push trading partners to lift restrictions and allow the full range of beef considered safe under international guidelines.

Mad cow disease is the common name for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, a degenerative nerve disease in cattle that is linked to a rare but fatal nerve disorder in humans, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.

Singapore is allowing only boneless beef shipments and still will prohibit ribs and other bone-in products. Likewise, South Korea and Hong Kong are accepting only boneless cuts of beef from animals 30 months and younger.

The restrictions remain because officials fear that marrow and other bone tissues might be dangerous, although international guidelines say those tissues can be traded safely.

Singapore was worth nearly $5.9 million to American producers in 2003, the year before the ban. It represents a smaller market than Japan, worth $1.4 billion in 2003.

The U.S. sold beef to 95 other countries before the first U.S. case of mad cow disease in December 2003; today, 70 countries are now open to U.S. beef. A second U.S. case was confirmed in June 2005.

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