- The Washington Times - Friday, January 20, 2006

Japan yesterday blocked U.S. beef from its market after an American meatpacker shipped parts of a spinal column, which is considered at risk of carrying mad cow disease, to the country.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) scrambled to reassure Japan, which only last month ended a ban on American beef that had been in place since the December 2003 discovery of mad cow in the U.S.

Mad cow fatally attacks the nervous systems of cattle. It can infect humans who eat diseased tissue, though such cases are rare.

Japan bought almost $1.2 billion worth of U.S. beef in 2003, making it the largest overseas market for American ranchers. Those sales all but stopped after Japan, citing health concerns, imposed its ban.

Japan ultimately agreed to resume imports of American beef under strict terms that regulated the age of animals and the cuts of meat allowed into the country, both measures meant to limit the likelihood of infected tissue entering the food supply.

A U.S. meatpacker, Atlantic Veal & Lamb Inc. of Brooklyn, N.Y., violated the deal when it included parts of a spinal column in a shipment to Japan.

“While this is not a food safety issue, this is an unacceptable failure on our part to meet the requirements of our agreement with Japan,” said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns.

“We take this matter seriously, recognizing the importance of our beef export market, and we are acting swiftly and firmly.”

Mr. Johanns yanked the company’s permit to export beef to Japan and said he would take “appropriate action” against the USDA inspectors who approved the shipment.

He also dispatched USDA personnel to Japan and additional inspectors to meatpacking plants that are certified to export, and planned to “immediately” issue a report on how the banned material made it into a shipment.

Philip Peerless, Atlantic Veal & Lamb’s president, said the shipment was “an honest mistake involving a very small amount of product.”

He noted that the backbone sent to Japan was not banned in the U.S.

But that mistake, reportedly three tainted boxes in a 41-box shipment, may have severe consequences for a U.S. cattle industry eager to reclaim Asian markets.

The agreement with Japan cued deals with South Korea, another major market, Singapore and Hong Kong to resume imports of some cuts of American beef. It is not clear what, if any, actions those other countries will take.

The Asian countries are especially important because they purchase cuts of meat, such as tongue and short ribs, that are less popular and less valuable in the U.S.

Japan’s Agriculture Ministry said it would leave the ban in place until it receives more information from the United States.

Japan had faced severe U.S. pressure to reopen its market, including the threat of trade sanctions from American lawmakers. It moved slowly because of consumer doubts about the safety of American beef.

Mr. Johanns said Japan’s government did not overreact when it quickly reimposed the ban.

Mad cow disease is officially called bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE.

Two cases have been discovered in the U.S., the most recent in 2005.

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