U.S., Japan closing trade gap?

Cattle Market & Farm Reports, Editorials
Sep 13, 2004
by WLJ
— Temporary 24-month testing exemption pondered.
— Japanese panel reiterates young cattle safe.
By Sarah Swenson, WLJ Associate Editor,
& Steven D. Vetter, WLJ Editor

An August 31 internal USDA memorandum indicated the agency could be open to the possibility of agreeing, with Japan, to lower the possible exemption age for cattle to be tested for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) from 30 months to 24 months, preliminarily. In addition, a federal Japanese food safety panel last week indicated the country's livestock and consumer health would not be sacrificed by not BSE testing younger cattle.
According to USDA's memo, a potential Japanese beef trade agreement would be predicated on USDA being allowed to determine cattle under 24 months of age by using a bone ossification test and beef from those cattle to be eligible for export to Japan without being tested for the disease. Cattle determined to be 24-30 months of age, via the combination of bone ossification testing and dentition (mouthing), could be tested for the disease before that beef is shipped overseas.
When asked to comment on the proposal, USDA officials denied that any agency protocol had been developed or announced and said they were still working hard to convince Japanese officials that science does not show a need to test cattle under 30 months of age.
Scientists told WLJ last week that bone ossification is a test that is very accurate in determining if an animal is older or younger than 24 months of age. Moreover, the test can accurately determine the actual age of animals.
"At two years of age, the bone structure and density changes due to maturity being reached," a Midwestern university kinesiology professor said. "Bone ossification can detect that change, and at that change, an animal is determined to be over 24 months of age. In an instance where that change has not been reached, the animal is younger than that."
A USDA spokesman said that bone ossification has been studied as an avenue of more closely determining an animal's age, but that it has not been discussed as being the sole tool for getting beef from cattle under 24 months of age shipped over to Japan.
"We have utilized that test in conjunction with dentition and other age-determining technologies," the spokesman said.
Other USDA sources said that any agreement with Japan concerning U.S. beef exports would be contingent on beef from cattle 30 months of age or younger being allowed into the country without any BSE testing once a national individual ID program is in place in the U.S.
Beef industry sources confirm the U.S. and Japan have been diligently working towards a compromise in the last few weeks, in an effort to resume trade this fall. According to Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary, Hiroyuki Hosoda, President George W. Bush, and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi are suppose to meet privately September 21, in conjunction with the United Nations' General Assembly in New York.
When asked if ending the beef ban would be on the agenda, Hosoda said, "I think various issues of concern will be discussed on such occasion."
Another Japanese source told the Tokyo Daily Yomiuri, "Relevant ministries and agencies are discussing what the prime minister can say on the issue at the summit meeting."
The official also indicated that Japan is currently exchanging views with U.S. counterparts on the issue, but the problem is to what extent these two countries can work out the details for the agreement before the meeting.
So far, the Japanese government only reports maintaining its position of 10 percent testing on animals of all ages. However, Sept. 6, a panel under the Japanese Food Safety Commission recommended its government shift its stance on testing for mad-cow disease in a manner that would likely pave the way for resuming U.S. beef imports. The ad hoc panel on BSE supported their suggestion by saying that under the current testing methods, BSE could not be detected in animals 20 months of age or younger. The bone ossification test could be the shift the ad hoc panel on BSE is seeking to solve this problem and compromise with their blanket testing policy.
Japan's Food Safety Commission was scheduled to meet Sept. 9 to respond to the recommendation of the ad hoc panel. If they endorse the panel's proposal, the Japanese government will then start deliberations on ending 100 percent testing.
Japanese newspapers are also covering the political aspect of resuming beef trade. According to the Daily Yomiuri, the government could face severe difficulties if criticism comes from consumers that public health has been put in danger to expedite beef trade resumption. This could be especially true, if the Japanese government gives the impression that the opening of the borders is in some way related to the U.S. presidential election in November.
Conclusions of the Cabinet Office's Food Safety Commission meeting were not available as of press time last Thursday.
Any resolution to the beef trade issue with Japan is expected to open up additional U.S. beef export markets, including Korea, which has been the third largest destination of U.S. beef the previous several years.
USDA officials said that they don't think Korea will require as many restrictions when they reopen their border to U.S. beef, however, they did say that Japan is the measuring stick being used to determine when the U.S. has made a strong enough effort to ensure the health and safety of its beef and beef products.
USDA officials said that of all the export markets that remained closed to U.S. beef, Japan and Korea make up 71 percent of that total, with the next biggest destination being Russia at only 6-8 percent. — WLJ