Japan's recent announcement that it will resume acceptance of imports of American beef is a positive first step. But it's a long way from fully restoring trade to this important market, says Joel Brinkmeyer, executive director of the Iowa Cattlemen's Association.
In 2003, before Japan first banned U.S. beef, exports of American beef to Japan were valued at $1.2 billion per year. The Japanese have imposed bans on U.S. beef in recent years because of fears of bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE - commonly known as mad cow disease.
In July 2006, Japanese government officials announced they would accept beef shipments - if the beef comes only from cattle under 20 months of age.
Announcement viewed as positive
American officials contend Japan's ban on U.S. beef was unjustified and the U.S. beef industry produces a safe, healthy food for consumers around the world. Japan has had problems with BSE in its own cattle industry recently.
"This latest announcement of resumption in trade with Japan was a long time coming," says Brinkmeyer. "There were months of serious negotiation by U.S. government officials with Japan. USDA was involved, as well as the National Cattlemen's Beef Association."
Cattlemen continue to push for sound science to be used in making trade policy, rather than using nontrade tariff barriers. "ICA and NACA want a full reopening of trade with Japan," he notes. "We want Japan to allow imports of beef from older cattle too, not just beef from young cattle."
Won't buy large amounts right away
Will the U.S. be sending a lot of beef over right away or will it be a slow process? It'll take time to rebuild the volume of exports to Japan. Indications are Japan won't import large amounts right away.
Cattle being processed at U.S. plants today are eligible for beef shipment to Japan, if the plants are approved. "Any movement of beef to customers helps our overall supply situation," he notes.
What type of product is the U.S. initially sending to Japan? Boxed beef or specialized product? First, it has to be young product, from cattle 20 months of age and younger, says Brinkmeyer. The cattle need to be approved through USDA's quality assessment system or a higher level program. There must be a true paper trail verifying the cattle are 20 months of age and younger.
There will be a variety of U.S. beef products shipped. But the Japanese consumer doesn't eat the same product as U.S. consumers do. The Japanese don't throw steaks on the grill like Americans do. There will be some steak and ground beef shipped to Japan. "But importantly, there will be some beef product shipped that we don't have as high of a demand for here in the U.S.," he says.
Need to educate consumers
Some consumers in Japan are resisting U.S. beef. That's interesting because there have been many more cases of BSE confirmed in Japanese cattle than in U.S. cattle. There have been over 20 cases confirmed in Japan versus only two or three in the U.S. And not all the cases in the U.S. were American-born cattle.
"We've made a very serious effort here in the U.S. to educate consumers," says Brinkmeyer. "Our association represents cattlemen. Along with packing industry and USDA we've worked to explain BSE to consumers and to make sure we have the best science backing up our work. We monitor for BSE and make sure the cattle that are found to be suspect of BSE are kept out of the food chain."
This is more of an animal health issue rather than a beef safety problem. But the situation isn't viewed that way in Japan. They use different safeguards. "The way Japan's government has positioned BSE, it is interpreted differently. Japanese consumers fear it," he explains. "We have to overcome that fear with good information, sound science and continue to market our product," he adds.
Japan inspecting our beef plants
Will we let Japanese inspectors come in and observe our processing facilities? That seems to be part of the deal. Is that ok with Iowa cattlemen? "I think it's necessary," answers Brinkmeyer. "That's obviously not the way our packers and cattlemen want to do business."
You wonder if the next step is that Japanese inspectors would want to visit farms and verify the age of cattle and have access to cattlemen's records. "I think our cattlemen would resist that," says Brinkmeyer. "This is a process and we need to compromise, and do what we can to make our beef available and sell more overseas. We have to accept it for now and move on and continue to focus on science-based standards and expand the market as best we can."