Japan's Ministry of Ag agreed Wednesday to lift the ban on U.S. beef imports pending satisfactory on-site audits of U.S. processing facilities. The announcement comes as Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi prepares to visit President Bush in Washington on June 29. It also follows increasing pressure from U.S. cattlemen, weary and frustrated over repeated Japanese delays in lifting the ban.
The accord was reached via video conference directed by Hiroshi Nakagawa, Japanese Ag Ministry's consumption safety director, and Chuck Lambert, USDA deputy undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs.
"It's another step on the path to resumption of trade," Lambert says. "We won't be happy until product starts to move, but there's room for cautious optimism."
Last week, NCBA's executive committee voted unanimously to support congressional legislation calling for retaliatory measures against Japan if trade doesn't resumed expeditiously. The organization supports action by Sens. Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Kent Conrad (D-ND) who this week introduced legislation calling for tariffs on Japanese exports if Japan doesn't open its borders to U.S. beef.
"Japan agreed to resume U.S. beef imports on the condition we find no further problems during on-site inspections," says Japan Ag Ministry official Hiroaki Ogura. He provided no details about the inspections expected to take place in July, and which could last as long as a month. Japanese audit teams will arrive in the U.S. this weekend to begin their plant audits.
"Our preference is trade will resume under fair and reliable guidelines and these measures won't be necessary," says NCBA's Terry Stokes, Denver. "But based on past experience, we can't be confident this will happen."
Japan lifted a two-year-old ban on U.S. beef and beef offal on Dec. 19, 2005, to products from animals aged up to 20 months and with risk materials removed. One month later, however, Tokyo inspectors found banned material in a U.S. veal shipment and reclosed the border.
U.S. negotiators had asked Japan to resume beef trade if similar mistakes could be prevented. If a violation is found, the U.S. wants Japan to restrict shipments only from an individual meatpacking company and not all U.S. processing companies.
Japan's ban on U.S. beef has been one of the thorniest economic and political issues between Tokyo and Washington. Before the ban, Japan was the top importer of U.S. beef, buying 240,000 tons valued at $1.4 billion in 2003.
The agreement is an important first step toward restoring U.S. beef exports to Japan, says U.S. Meat Export Federation president and CEO Phil Seng.
"The commitments made by both governments are fundamental to rebuilding the confidence of importers and consumers in Japan along with producers and exporters in the U.S.," Seng adds. "We understand Japanese officials wish to thoroughly review U.S. beef safety systems and protocols, and we're confident they will find our practices meet or exceed their high standards. At the same time, it's critically important for Japan to recognize the U.S. food safety system and accept imports from all U.S. beef facilities approved by the USDA."
-- Clint Peck