UPDATED: USDA, USTR meet Japanese officials in California on U.S. beef & beef products

By Jon H. Harsch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

Washington, Sept. 15 – U.S. and Japanese agriculture and trade officials ended two days of meetings in California Wednesday aimed at phasing out Japan's restrictions on U.S. beef imports based on concern over mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE) U.S. officials initiated the talks, the first with this focus for more than three years, in the hope that Japan will be willing to consider a fresh approach now that newly installed Prime Minister Naoto Kan heads the cabinet.

Commenting on the talks Wednesday, Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack said that “I am hopeful that we can begin through these technical discussions to break down the unscientific barriers that exist in that country. It is hard for me to understand how a country where they have had substantially more incidents of BSE in their own livestock can essentially prevent our livestock from entering that market. And we know there is a demand for our product because it's a quality product.”

The U.S. view is that any import restrictions should be based on sound science, not unsubstantiated concerns. At the talks, officials from Japan's Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry and the U.S. Department of Agriculture explained their respective tests and safety measures for dealing with BSE. Japan imposed restrictions on U.S. beef imports following a 2003 case of BSE in the U.S. Japan currently bans imports of U.S. beef from cattle aged over 20 months.

Resolving outstanding issues with Japan including the beef restrictions is considered particularly important now since the U.S. will take over the chairmanship of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) in November. Another U.S. reason for resolving the issue relates to the Obama administration's commitment to double U.S. exports within five years. Any visible progress toward this goal could benefit Democrats in the November midterm elections.

In a statement following the two-day breakthrough “technical working-level meeting” on U.S. beef and beef product exports, USDA spokesman Caleb Weaver and Office of the U.S. Trade Representative spokeswoman Nefeterius McPherson explained that:

“Technical delegations from the Governments of the United States and Japan met in Burlingame, California, on September 14-15, 2010, for discussions on issues related to bilateral trade in beef and beef products.

“The discussions, led by Dr. John Clifford, Chief Veterinary Officer, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Dr. Toshiro Kawashima, Director and Chief Veterinary Officer, Animal Health Division of the Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, covered a wide array of technical topics related to BSE, including: current Japanese regulations and regulatory processes, Japan’s risk assessment process for beef and beef products, and Japan’s import inspection and border measures. The Japanese Government also sought clarification of developments in the United States related to BSE surveillance measures, among other areas.

“The purpose of these working-level discussions was to clarify technical issues and address questions.”

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