January 6, 2006
By Mike Barnett
Words from a song performed by country singer Charley Pride probably sum up the U.S./Japanese beef situation the best: "The easy part's over now, and the hard part begins."
A two-year struggle to reopen Japan's borders to U.S. beef after discovery of a case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in December 2003 came to an end with a shipment of five tons of U.S. beefconsisting of tongues, diaphragms and other cutsaccepted by a Japanese ham and sausage maker.
The contentious struggle to get that market open may seem easy in the future as U.S. beef producers struggle to regain market share in Japan. Before the discovery of the first BSE-infected cow in the United States, Japan was the largest export market for U.S. beef with sales of $1.4 billion in 2003.
"Since that time, that void has been filled by Australian beef and Japanese imports of U.S. pork," said Dr. David Anderson, Cooperative Extension livestock economist. "How soon we recapture that market share is the key question to how soon we'll see the impact of the decision. It may be a long-term process. It's highly likely it won't be an overnight thing."
Under the agreement, in line with a recommendation with Japan's Food Safety Commission, the Japanese government lifted the ban on imports of beef and beef offal from U.S. and Canadian cattle up to 20 months of age, on condition that "risk" materials, such as brains and spinal cords, are removed before the meat is shipped to Japan. Also, the stipulation of an age verification process will limit eligible animals to perhaps as few as 10 to 15 percent of the U.S. herd, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation.
To meet the export requirements of Japan, U.S. cattle must come through a Quality System Assessment (QSA), which is part of the Beef Export Verification (BEV) program run by USDA. The QSA stretches from the farm to the packer and ensures that the beef is source and age verified.
Industry concerns also center around the acceptance of U.S. beef by the Japanese consumer. Recent polls suggest consumers in Japan still question the safety of U.S. beef and may be reluctant to purchase the product.
"We are committed to assuring Japanese consumers that U.S. beef is safe and they can enjoy it without hesitation," said U.S. Meat Export Federation President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Philip Seng recently in Tokyo. "We will rebuild consumer confidence using consumer education and by working closely with the Japanese trade."
Seng projects the United States will export 100,000 metric tons of beef to Japan in 2006, and will reach the pre-BSE level of more than 300,000 metric tons within three years.
Meanwhile, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns is urging other countries to follow Japan's lead. Prior to the December 2003 discovery of the first infected BSE cow in the United States, the U.S. exported beef and beef products to 119 countries. With the opening of Japan, 67 countries have reestablished beef trade with the U.S.
"Japan's action sets an excellent example for other countries in Asia whose markets remained closed," Johanns said. "Now is the time for Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, China, Singapore and others to open their markets to U.S. beef. I urge all countries to take a science-based approach and adopt OIE standards for allowing beef trade."