Japan has agreed to lift a significant restriction on U.S. beef that’s expected to result in as much as an additional $200 million in annual U.S. exports, USDA announced Friday.

Effective immediately, Japan will now longer require that the beef it buys from the U.S. come from cattle that were less than 30 months old at the time of slaughter, a provision designed to protect against bovine spongiform encephalopathy, more commonly known as mad cow disease.

“This is great news for American ranchers and exporters who now have full access to the Japanese market for their high-quality, safe, wholesome, and delicious U.S. beef,” said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who worked with Japanese officials this week in Japan to get the restriction lifted. “We are hopeful that Japan’s decision will help lead other markets around the world toward science-based policies.”

Japan completely banned U.S. beef in 2003 after the first case of BSE was discovered in a dairy cow in the U.S. Two years later, Japan began accepting some cuts of beef under restrictive terms, including a provision that the product came from cattle slaughtered before they were 20 months old. A little over six years ago, those restrictions were loosened, including an increase in the age allowance to under 30 months.

Japan is the highest value foreign market for U.S. beef, and sales to the Asian nation continue to rise. The U.S. sold about $1.7 billion worth of beef to Japan in 2018, up from $1.5 billion in 2017.

But trade could be even better. The Japanese decision to lift the cattle age restriction may be a good sign for the ongoing free trade agreement talks between the two countries. As of now, Japan charges a 38.5 percent tariff on U.S. beef, and that’s expected to be a target for U.S. negotiators as talks continue.

Had the U.S. not pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal with Japan and 10 other countries, a deal would have already been in place to reduce that tariff gradually to just 9 percent. That reduction would have spurred U.S. beef exports to Japan to increase by $876 million per year, according to an analysis by the U.S. International Trade Commission.

As to Japan’s decision this week to lift the cattle age restriction, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association President Jennifer Houston says it’s a victory that will hopefully have ramifications throughout Asia.

“This underscores the safety of the U.S. beef herd, and it will hopefully send a signal to other Asian nations that non-science-based trade barriers like this one should be eliminated in their countries, as well,” Houston said. "Tariff rates grab all the headlines, but non-tariff barriers are often just as important, if not more so, when it comes to determining market access. Hopefully this will help spotlight this important point and lead to more trade victories in the near future." 

Dan Halstrom, president and CEO of the U.S. Meat Export Federation, says while "most of the U.S. beef shipped to Japan will continue to be from fed cattle under 30 months of age, the opportunities for over-30-month beef cuts and beef variety meat are significant." He cited chuckeye rolls, short ribs, and briskets as a handful of cuts from cattle over 30 months of age that can expect interest from Japanese buyers under the new rules.

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