Japan announced Thursday it would resume imports of U.S. beef from cattle 20 months of age and younger, according to a statement from Ag Secretary Mike Johanns.
"This has been a long process as we've confirmed that our system is in full compliance with Japan's import requirements and provided Japan with clear, scientific data confirming that American beef is extremely safe," Johanns states. "It is gratifying to know that these efforts paid-off, as did the patience demonstrated by Congress."
Of the 35 plants inspected this summer by Japanese auditing teams, two were not approved for immediate shipments. USDA press secretary Ed Loyd explained that while Japan has accepted the overall U.S. system of export meat inspection, there was an issue with paperwork at one plant. As soon as it is corrected, plant will be eligible, Loyd says. Exports to Japan from the second plant have been "temporarily deferred" due to its recent sale. Japan, the USDA, and the new plant management have agreed to the delay while the plant - and its beef export verification program - are in transition to the new management, Loyd adds. USDA has not released the identities of the two plants.
Prior to the first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, the United States exported $1.4 billion worth of beef and beef products to Japan. Johanns says he has asked the Japanese Government to meet this fall to discuss the next steps toward strengthening the beef trading relationship and graduating to standards based in science.
A statement from Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Saxby Chambliss adds, "I remain concerned with the restrictions on cattle over 20 months of age, but I am optimistic that internationally-accepted scientific standards will prevail and lead to a full restoration of beef trade between our nations in the near future."
Johanns that science provides clear data upon which to build trading standards. "All of us must be mindful of these guidelines and work toward complying with them," he says.
Open markets doesn't guarantee pre-BSE levels
John Stewart, CEO and founder of Creekstone, explains today's announcement does not guarantee that US beef processors can quickly regain U.S. market share. Currently, Australia and New Zealand have over 80% of the Japanese beef market. "According to recent public opinion polls, a large majority of Japanese consumers are extremely cautious when it comes to purchasing and eating US beef," explains Stewart. Stewart notes that in addition to consumer resistance, there has been a decline in Japan's per capita beef consumption since the ban was put in place December 23, 2003.
Creekstone is currently challenging USDA in federal court for its right to voluntarily test 100% of its beef for BSE. "American beef processors in the short run are only going to regain markets lost to Australia and New Zealand (which have both been certified as "BSE free" by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and have no reported cases of BSE), by doing everything we can to satisfy Japanese customer and consumer concerns," says Stewart. "And that means 100% BSE testing, if those consumers are requesting that method of reassurance."
South Korea delays border reopening
Creekstone Farmers adds it is concerned about U.S. Government's failure to reopen the South Korean market. Creekstone Farms, whose plant together with 30 other US plants recently qualified to export non-bone-in beef to South Korea, criticized USDA for holding up those US beef processors who passed South Korea's inspection.
"Secretary Johanns is hurting beef processors, cattle producers, and US trade by holding up this process. He should immediately allow those plants that passed inspection to begin shipping beef to South Korea. Moreover, Secretary Johanns must separately and quickly resolve the issues regarding bone chip tolerance and the segregation of Canadian beef from domestic beef at the processing level," states Stewart.
He adds it doesn't make sense for USDA to prevent the approved plants that passed South Korea's audit because a few plants had issues. "It is our understanding that those re-audits and inspections are underway. Thus, we would hope that they are completed very soon. This time, plants that are ready can ship. Plants that are not ready can't ship. The bone chip tolerance must have further resolution, but if in fact South Korea firmly resists any tolerance, then each US plant should be authorized to ship products at their own risk if they choose to do so as long as South Korea would penalize the specific plant where the violation occurred and not shut down the entire industry," Stewart says.