February 3, 2006
Producer says Japan's
By Mike Barnett
Frustration and disbelief were evident in Decky Spiller's voice as he voiced concerns over Japan again closing its borders to U.S. beef.
"It's pretty disheartening in that we finally got this export market to open back up, and it looked like we had something to look forward to," the cattle program manager for Falcon Seabord Ranches in Fredericks-burg said. "And almost on the heels of it opening, we have some sort of [problem]."
Japan halted shipments of American beef on Jan. 20 after finding a shipment of veal that contained backbone. The U.S. agreement with Japan is to export beef with no vertebral column. Japan had reopened its market to U.S. beef only a few weeks ago. It had been closed since the U.S. discovered its first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in December 2003.
Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns attributed the problem to human error"a failure on the part of the exporter and on the part of USDA personnel to identify the product as being ineligible."
With a value of U.S. beef exports to Japan of over $1.4 billion in 2003, that "error" is proving to be a costly mistake.
"That's another frustration, not only in agriculture, but specifically in the beef cattle industry," Spiller commented. "At this point and time we're looking at pretty dry conditions through the middle of the nation, and some kind of uncertainties as far as moisture is concerned. But now, we've got the organization on the federal level that's supposed to be working for us, and now it seems every time we turn around we're bumping heads with them, trying to get things accomplished."
Johanns insisted the backbone that was exported to Japan was not a specified risk material under U.S. or international guidelines because it was from beef under 20 months of age.
"The fact does remain that our agreement with Japan is to export beef with no vertebral column," he acknowledged. "And very clearly this shipment in part at least failed to meet the terms of the agreement."
Johanns said the product in question was veal, which was only recently added to the U.S. export agreement with Japan, and that U.S. exporters and inspection program personnel had little time to get familiar with the export verification program and its requirements for Japan. But he also offered no excuses, and delivered a stern warning to potential exporters of U.S. beef and to USDA personnel.
"The details of our export agreements are clearly and meticulously explained, and it is incumbent upon you and our inspection and verification personnel to ensure that we meet the requirements of our export agreements...all of our export agreements," he said.
Noting that billions of dollars of trade hang in the balance over this issue, Johanns announced several steps to strengthen the inspection system and to ensure compliance:
Submit a report to the government of Japan on the U.S. investigation, its actions, and consequences of failure to comply with their requirements.
The plant in question has been delisted for export of beef products in Japan.
USDA will require a second Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) signature on U.S. export verification certificates.
USDA will initiate unannounced reviews of plants that are a part of the export program.
FSIS held a conference with all of its district managers to reaffirm requirements of all countries with which the U.S. has a verification program.
USDA is requiring inspectors in all plants that are certified to export to review procedures to ensure compliance.
No additional plants will be listed under the Export Verification Programs until USDA is confident that procedures have been reviewed and reinforced.
USDA will dispatch a team to Japan to work with the Japanese government to review all shipments there to ensure compliance.
From a producer perspective, Spiller said he wants USDA to make sure it has "all its ducks in a row" when and if Japan again accepts U.S. beef exports.
"We know we can't screw up or it's going to get shut off again," he said. "And just the psychological ramifications throughout our market here through daily trading has a tremendous financial impact on this business. We're going to have to be able to control that as much as possible."
...another BSE case in Canada
Ag Secretary Mike Johanns said he is confident in the safety of beef and "in the safeguards we and our approved beef trading partners have in place to protect our food supply."
He said import of beef and live cattle under the current U.S./Canadian agreement will proceed because Canada was able to keep the cow out of the human food or animal feed chain by following internationally accepted, science-based guidelines.