Japan Trade Talks Creep Along; Is Japan Stalling?

The U.S. agreed this week to train workers handling beef exports to Japan and to double its final checks on beef shipments headed there. Still, Tokyo isn't completely satisfied, the Japan Times reports.

The article quotes Hirofumi Kugita, director of Japan's farm ministry's animal health division, as saying that while the two sides reached "a degree" of understanding during the two-day meeting, "I cannot call it a major step forward, but I can say it was a step forward, rather than backward."

In addition to the training and the checks, the U.S. also has agreed to increase communication among the different regulatory sections within USDA. No target date was set for lifting the ban on U.S. beef, however.

The article says Tokyo's main concern is the export error that re-closed the Japan market to U.S. beef in mid-January could be a systemic problem. It wants assurances other facilities won't make the same mistake.

"We are not yet fully convinced by the U.S. explanation that (the veal shipment) was a unique incident," said Hideshi Michino, director of the health ministry's office of import food inspection and safety division. "But the U.S. admits it needs to carry out improvement measures, and we want to study those measures."

Talking to reporters in Washington this week, USDA Secretary Mike Johanns said he expected Japan to have more questions, but added his concern the Japanese moves might be "a stalling tactic."

He said USDA would respond to any additional questions "very quickly, but there's a point where this needs to be resolved, and we have really reached that point now."

Meanwhile, Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) reports U.S. beef is being sold at a 20% discount into Australia's fourth biggest market, Taiwan. MLA says Aussie beef sales aren't being affected and doesn't think the U.S. will use the same tactic in the much bigger Japan market once it reopens to U.S. beef.

That's because food quality and safety are likely to be the issues in Japan, not the price, says MLA's Tim Kelf.

"The retailers are being very cautious about just jumping back into American product, the Japanese are not going to rush back to American product," he says. "I wouldn't necessarily have agreed with that 12 months ago but I think that this time the Japanese consumer from my previous experience many years ago are fairly twitchy." -- Joe Roybal