(May 23, 2007)

Japan has no plans to ease rules on US beef

By Chikafumi Hodo
From Reuters

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan has no immediate plans to ease an age limit rule on U.S. beef imports despite the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) softening its security rating on U.S. and Canadian cattle, a Japanese farm ministry official said on Wednesday.

The OIE's move on Tuesday could revive beef exports from the United States and Canada, curtailed after mad cow disease surfaced.

The Paris-based OIE, which sets guidelines for animal health and meat safety, gave the United States and Canada a "controlled risk" status for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) at its annual general meeting.

"We respect the decision made by the OIE, which is based on scientific grounds, but this doesn't mean Japan will accept its decision and immediately revise conditions for U.S. beef imports," the official said.

The top government spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki, told reporters on Wednesday: "This will not immediately lead to changes in conditions for importing."

Currently, Japan accepts U.S. meat from animals 20 months or younger, but U.S. exporters would like to see meat shipped from animals up to 30 months old.

U.S. officials, along with the beef industry, have been pushing Japan to loosen its import rules on beef, hoping to rebuild the beef trade.

They want Japan to accept meat from older animals and also seek an end to mandatory inspections of each box of beef.

Experts from Japan's farm and health ministries are visiting U.S. meat packers from May 13 to 28 to inspect whether they are maintaining safety rules imposed under a bilateral beef trade agreement.

The official said the government has to see the result of the inspections before considering revising conditions for U.S. beef imports, including the issue of the age limit.

"We have to see the outcome of the inspections to see if the current program is being followed properly in order to move to the next step," he said.

Japan does not have any plans for a meeting with U.S. officials in the near term to discuss beef trade, he said.

Japan initially banned imports of U.S. beef after the discovery of the first case of mad cow disease in the United States in December 2003.

It resumed imports in December 2005 but reimposed the ban in January 2006 after bone fragments were found in a shipment of veal. It lifted the ban again in July 2006.

Japan has suspended imports from several U.S. beef processing plants since last November after what it said were violations.

Most recently, last Friday Japan temporarily banned beef imports from Cargill Meat Solutions Corp.'s plant in Fort Morgan, Colorado, after shipments from the plant were found to include meat that may have come from cattle aged more than 20 months, in violation of the bilateral agreement.

Some 18 tons of frozen liver from the plant arrived in Japan in early May, including 7 kg of stomach parts with no safety certificate from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

U.S. beef exports to Japan were worth about $1.4 billion a year until 2003. For 2006 the figure stood at $66 million.

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