Willing to negotiate

Cattle Market & Farm Reports, Editorials
Sep 20, 2007
by WLJ
13, 2004
The past few weeks have been a real seesaw when it comes U.S. beef regaining the Japanese market. One week the news is that it's gonna take 100 percent BSE testing to access the market. Then, we hear the Japanese are considering excluding cattle under 20 months old with specified risk materials removed. It has been a long summer for USDA and trade negotiators, but it does appear that they are making some significant headway.
Last week, a Japanese panel of food safety experts said that they can't find any scientific justification to test cattle for BSE that are younger than 20 months old. There is speculation that the report, requested by the Japanese Food Safety Commission (FSC), would give that agency reason to drop the government's requirement of 100 percent BSE testing on that class of cattle, therefore easing the ban on U.S. beef.
The Japanese testing hangup on the younger cattle is because they claim to have found BSE in a 21-month-old animal. Canada and the European Union have all been comfortable with not testing cattle 30 months and younger, which the U.S. has maintained a strong position on.
After last week's news, it appears that the Japanese may settle on some other age threshold soon. That could be somewhere between 20 and 30 months old. Then the question will be how to determine that age. Most likely, those efforts will focus on dentition, more commonly known as "mouthing," and/or bone ossification tests, which have been considered unreliable in the past.
The FSC concluded last Thursday that current testing technology isn't sensitive enough to detect the bovine illness in cows younger than 20 months, and that excluding the young and newborn cattle from testing "won't increase the risk" of transmission to humans.
President Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi are scheduled to meet next week during the United Nations General Assembly in New York. It appears that the beef industry will get some special attention in this meeting. President Bush could create a nice positive outlook for the beef industry by announcing that some agreement with the Japanese government on beef imports has been made.
There is also speculation that the U.S. and Japan may have already come to some sort of tentative agreement about beef trade that will be announced during this meeting. We have been told that heads of state don't necessarily like surprises during these types of meetings, which are usually well orchestrated so there are no curve balls thrown.
It will be interesting to see where this age line is drawn. The U.S. has been importing beef from Canada from cattle under 30 months of age for nearly a year. If there is a special age threshold made for the Japanese market, what will the ramifications be for Canadian beef.
It appears that 24 months may be where the line is drawn and that the bone ossification test will be the testing method used. If that is the case, will it send a message to consumers that there is some question over beef that is between 24 and 30 months of age that they have already consumed? Anti-beef consumer groups may have a problem with that idea.
Also would the 24-month-old criteria be temporary, to the extent that USDA has tested nearly 50,000 head of cattle without any BSE turning up. If we reach 250,000 head, will that mean that the U.S. is BSE free and that we won't have to test at all for the Japanese market?
Even though Japan has exposed a crack in their demands for 100 percent BSE testing, there are still a lot of un-answered questions about the protocol in exporting beef to Japan.
There has been a variety of signals coming from Japan, with this latest report and reactions from several weeks ago when a group of Japanese officials toured the U.S. on a fact finding mission in which they claimed they wanted full compliance on the testing issue.
For the most part, this trade issue appears very political, which is clearly where the remedies will come from. This next meeting with Bush and the Japanese Prime Minister hopefully exposes the politics, and gives Bush something to show agriculture, which is an important campaign issue in this election.

It's encouraging that Japan is starting to back away from their testing demands. — PETE CROW