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Years seen for U.S. to regain Japan beef market

/ Source: The Associated Press

Amid mounting tension over Japan’s ban on American beef, the head of the U.S. Meat Export Federation warned Thursday it would take years to regain lost market share even if Tokyo did reopen its markets.

Proposed restrictions on what U.S. beef would be readmitted mean that only as much as 35 percent of American cattle would be eligible for export, federation president Philip Seng said in Tokyo.

“When the market opens, it won’t be like it was before,” Seng said. “Much, much less is going to be eligible.”

Amid pressure from U.S. beef producers, the Japanese government is weighing whether to lift the ban it imposed after the head of a cow in Washington state tested positive for mad cow disease in 2003. U.S. lawmakers lashed out at Tokyo earlier this week for delaying a decision and warned it could lead to sanctions.

Seng urged Japan to quickly reopen the market, but said U.S. exports would rebound to only half their pre-ban level in the first year of resumed trade. It would take two or three years to reach the estimated 250,000 metric tons the United States was shipping annually to Japan before the ban, Seng said.

The Japanese committee studying mad cow issues at the country’s Food Safety Commission convened earlier this week but postponed a decision on whether to lift the 20-month ban on U.S. imports.

A draft report on the panel’s recommendations says that the safety of U.S. beef cannot be ensured under current safeguards and that imports should be restricted to meat from cattle younger than 21 months with birth certificates. Japanese officials should also be granted onsite inspections of U.S. farms to ensure quality.

Those restrictions would greatly narrow the number of U.S. cattle eligible for export to Japan, Seng said.

Japan’s mad cow panel meets again on Oct. 4 and is expected to further discuss the draft then. Final recommendations will be submitted to the government later this year.

Seng called talk in Washington of trade sanctions “a manifestation of the extreme frustration that’s occurring in the United States and the slowness of the process.”

Once the biggest customer of American beef, Japan imported more than $1.5 billion’s worth in 2003. Concerns about resuming trade mounted in Japan in June, when a second U.S. case of mad cow disease was confirmed in a Texas-born cow.

Japan, in contrast, has found 20 cases of mad cow disease, but the difference is that Japanese authorities test all beef for the disease before it is processed into food. Japan agreed to waive tests for cattle under 21 months because experts say that risk of infection among cows that age is negligible.

Eating beef infected with mad cow disease is thought to cause a fatal brain disorder that has killed more than 150 people, mostly in Britain, since the 1990s.

Agricultural Minister Mineichi Iwanaga expressed concerns Tuesday about possible U.S. reprisals after Tokyo deferred a decision on lifting the ban, saying, “I’m afraid U.S. Congress will get very tough.”

“It is important for both countries to continue efforts so Japan and the United States can simultaneously resume two-way beef trade,” Iwanaga said.