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U.S. meat industry representatives briefed on Japanese beef trade situation.

Representatives from three-dozen U.S. meat companies met last week with Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, who provided both an update of Japan's reimposed ban on imports of U.S. beef and a warning about the consequences of any future missteps. "We must ensure that mistakes are not repeated," Johanns said, referring to the recent shipment to Japan of U.S. beef that contained prohibited materials. "Billions of dollars of trade literally hang in the balance on these issues." he said, "We are at risk [of] being back at where we were when I took this job over a year ago."

In Japan, top Japanese government officials warned U.S. government representatives that another mistake could result in a permanent ban on U.S. beef. Japanese consumers may never eat U.S. beef again if similar incidents occur, Agriculture Minister Shoichi Nakagawa told Johanns, according to Jiji Press Service.

The incident in question involves the discovery on January 2, 2006 of banned animal tissue in a shipment of U.S. beef. That shipment of approximately 560 pounds of beef was found to contain specific risk materials that are believed to be the vector for the transmission of mad cow disease. Japanese Agriculture Ministry officials said spinal column parts were found in three of 41 boxes of U.S. beef.

According to USDA officials who accompanied Johanns at the industry briefing, the incident involved two U.S. companies: a processing plant in Ohio and a fabrication plant in Brooklyn, New York (Atlantic Veal & Lamb). USDA has de- listed both companies until the department receives more information about the incident.

What is clear is that the cut that was shipped from the fabrication plant (a hotel rack veal cut) had been requested specifically by a Japanese customer. By definition, this cut includes vertebral column (backbone), along with rib bones. However, in an agreement with Japan, the United States is committed to shipping no beef that includes vertebral bones as a condition for Japan dropping its two-year-old ban on imports of U.S. beef. Since the cut was from a veal calf under five months of age, the issue is not one of food safety, but rather a violation of the U.S.-Japan agreement on beef trade.

Japanese food safety officials consider a cow's vertebral column to be unacceptable since that it one of the tissues thought to hold the possibility of carrying mad cow disease. No case of mad cow disease has ever been found in a calf as young as five month of age. Regarding the timeline on resuming U.S. beef trade with Japan, Agriculture Under Secretary J.B. Penn said, "We need to complete the investigation into the incident. We need to provide the information that we develop from that investigation and then let that guide us as to any additional actions that might be necessary for us to take to begin to restore confidence and get trade resumed." Penn was speaking in Tokyo where he was leading a delegation of U.S. officials in talks aimed at allaying concerns of Japanese government representatives.

Penn told reporters in Tokyo that USDA believes "this was an isolated incident" of a company and an inspector "being only marginally involved in international commerce." He said that before this month's shipment of the hotel rack veal cut, the Brooklyn-based fabrication plant had made only four previous beef shipments to Japan, and that those occurred in 2002. "[S]o I believe it's a case of an organization having very little experience in international trade, and consequently the inspectors in the plant perhaps not being as fully aware of the requirements of the expert verification program as they should have been," said Penn.
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Publication:Food & Drink Weekly
Article Type:Industry Overview
Date:Jan 30, 2006
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