U.S. senators met with Japan’s ambassador on Capitol Hill yesterday to express growing frustration over a ban on U.S. beef, but the lawmakers distanced themselves from a House threat to impose trade sanctions.
U.S. beef appears no closer to entering Japan than in October, when the Bush administration announced a breakthrough in negotiations and the resumption of trade in “a matter of weeks.”
Japan was the top foreign market for U.S. ranchers and meatpackers, worth more than $1 billion in 2003, but along with dozens of other nations the country banned American beef after U.S. authorities discovered a single case of mad cow disease in December 2003.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat and other senators yesterday urged Ambassador Ryozo Kato to lift the beef ban.
“We didn’t directly threaten retaliation, but I think the ambassador understood how important this was,” Mr. Baucus said.
The ambassador last week met with 14 Senate and House lawmakers, including Rep. Jerry Moran, Kansas Republican, who earlier this month introduced legislation calling for sanctions if Japan doesn’t resolve the dispute.
Underscoring the political importance of the issue, President Bush during a March 9 phone call pressed Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to resume beef trade and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this week is expected to raise the issue during a visit to Japan.
“From our vantage point we are very cognizant of the growing frustration among members of Congress. The administration has shared that frustration with the lack of movement,” said Ed Loyd, a U.S. Agriculture Department spokesman.
Mr. Loyd said the administration does not want the disagreement to escalate to the point where trade sanctions would be imposed.
The ban on U.S. beef was considered a health and animal safety decision immediately following the discovery of mad cow disease, but is now seen by the United States as a political fight reminiscent of trade battles over TVs, compact cars, apples and other products that caused friction in the 1980s and 1990s.
Japan maintains it is working through a bureaucratic process than cannot be hurried by political considerations. The government appointed a Food Safety Commission that is considering steps that must be taken before trade can resume.
“In order to convince the public of the safety of U.S. beef, we do not want to appear to put pressure on the commission,” said an official connected with Japan’s Embassy in Washington, who asked not to be named.
First the commission must agree that not every animal must be tested for mad cow disease.
That would represent a shift in existing policy that has been under consideration for months.
Then, the commission would consider a rule that would allow U.S. beef from cattle 20 months and younger into the market.