- The Washington Times - Monday, October 31, 2005

A Japanese government committee said U.S. beef is a low risk for mad cow disease, taking a step toward allowing American ranchers to resume exports to their former top overseas market.

Japan has embargoed American beef since December 2003, when the U.S. Agriculture Department discovered a single case of mad cow disease in an animal from Washington state.

“[Monday’s] action isn’t the final step in the process of reopening Japan’s market, but it may turn out to be important toward getting where we should have been a long time ago. I’m frustrated that this process has become so drawn out, but I hope the end is in sight,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and chairman of the Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over trade.

U.S. lawmakers have threatened trade sanctions if Japan does not reopen its market by mid-December.

Yesterday’s announcement in Tokyo did not make clear when trade could resume. The Associated Press reported that Japan may begin importing U.S. beef by the end of this year.

U.S. beef exports reached $3.14 billion in 2003, but plummeted to $552 million last year when major markets — including Japan, South Korea, Mexico and Canada — at least temporarily closed their markets.

Mexico and Canada have reopened their borders to some cuts of meat, but Japan, which in 2003 bought $1.2 billion from the United States, and South Korea have not.

The impact of the embargo on U.S. consumers has been limited. U.S. demand for beef has remained strong, keeping prices up, and the top exports to Japan and Korea, such as tongue, short ribs and skirt steak, are not in great demand at home.

Even if trade resumes, Japan will purchase cuts of beef only from animals younger than 21 months, an age considered low-risk for mad cow disease.

“It would be a resumption of a limited amount of product compared to what we were shipping before the ban went into effect,” said James Hodges, president of the American Meat Institute, a trade group that represents meatpackers.

The U.S. cattle industry and the Agriculture Department maintain that American beef is safe, though Japanese and Korean officials cite health concerns for closing their markets.

The Japanese government committee said that, as long as precautions are taken, U.S. beef is low risk for mad cow disease. The panel forwarded its report to a Food Safety Commission, which is expected to consider it tomorrow.

Approval by the commission would lead to a series of public hearings ahead of any final government decision to reopen the market.

“We think trade will resume. But I don’t have a feel for a timeline right now,” said Gregg Doud, chief economist at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

Mr. Doud said a Nov. 16 meeting between President Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi would be the next “point of reference” in settling the dispute.

Mad cow disease, officially called bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, fatally attacks the nervous systems of cattle.

Humans who eat infected tissue can become infected with a form of the disease.

Since the December 2003 case, one other animal has been diagnosed with mad cow disease in the United States.

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