U.S. meat inspectors were dispatched to Japan to check American beef shipments detained there and U.S. beef processors will be under stricter scrutiny to meet Tokyo’s requirements, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said Friday.
Johanns announced a series of steps to assure the safety of beef exports hours after Japan announced it found part of a calf’s backbone — prohibited under a U.S.-Japan agreement — in an American shipment.
Tokyo immediately suspended all U.S. imports, just a month after lifting a two-year ban. Japan traditionally is the No. 1 foreign customer for U.S. beef, and winning re-entry to its market was a landmark for the Bush administration.
The company that shipped the beef, New York-based Atlantic Veal and Lamb, apologized for the mistake.
“We sincerely regret that we shipped product not approved for export to Japan. Our company shipped this product in response to an order by a Japanese customer,” the company said in a statement.
“We are absolutely confident that the product is safe,” it said, adding the meat came from a calf about 4-1/2 months old.
At Atlantic Veal’s brick plant, located in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, employees declined to comment. The building was surrounded by a barbed wire and a corrugated iron fence enclosed the shipping yard where trucks were loaded.
Japan imports only U.S. beef from cattle aged 20 months or younger and requires all animal material linked to mad cow, including the spinal column, to be totally removed. Experts believe that young animals are least likely to carry the deadly mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy.
“This is an unacceptable failure on our part to meet the requirements of our agreement with Japan,” Johanns told reporters. “Our inspector should have caught this.”
A team of USDA inspectors will re-examine U.S. shipments detained at Japanese ports. “That product isn’t going to move into the Japanese marketplace until they are satisfied that we have met their concerns and their requirements,” he said.
Meanwhile, all U.S. meat plants must now have two USDA inspectors review shipments to confirm that rules are followed. Surprise inspections are planned to ensure compliance.
On Tuesday, the USDA will meet with beef companies to review compliance with the U.S.-Japan trade agreement.
Beef industry officials said they were surprised the trade pact was violated after two years of difficult negotiations to reopen the Japanese market.
“We’re just now getting back into that marketplace,” said Jay Truitt, a vice president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. “What we’re trying to do is build a long-term relationship for a billion pounds of beef-trade. You simply can’t allow mistakes like this to occur.”
The company’s error could have other implications.
Last week, South Korea said it would follow Japan’s lead and ease a two-year ban on some U.S. beef imports.
Johanns said he would speak with other countries that import U.S. beef to discuss the investigation and the new procedures USDA is taking to enforce mad cow safety rules.