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Feb 10, 2005
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Southern Manitoba
U.S. cattle growers rightly ask Japan: where's the beef?
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle

It wasn't that long ago that a Japanese politician, in an exuberant display of xenophobia, sought to explain that U.S. beef imports must be limited because stomachs in his island nation were different.

Longer digestive tracts in Japan, Tsutomu Hata told a stunned Capitol Hill luncheon in 1987.

"I've never heard that argument before," a seethingly bemused Clayton K. Yeutter, then the U.S. Trade Representative, told reporters. "I've heard all the rest of them." So had everyone else, especially U.S. farmers.

And it's with Hata's calculated intransigence in mind that we move up to the present day, when yet another beef crisis unnecessarily darkens U.S.-Japanese relations.

Since December 2003, Japan has banned importation of U.S. beef. The exclusion was initially understandable. A single case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was found in a cow slaughtered in Washington state but recently brought in from Canada. It it will soon be 18 months since that discovery, and no subsequent diseased animals have turned up in the United States. But Japan refuses to lift the embargo.

Before the ban, Japan was the largest export market for U.S. beef exports and those sales amounted to $1.7 billion a year, according to the office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

(Guess those eccentric Japanese intestines had just learned to cope with U.S. beef — and appreciate its relatively low price compared to some of the richly marbled homegrown alternative from wagyu cattle, known as Kobe beef. )

U.S. beef producers have grown understandably agitated at the inaction in Tokyo.

"They been dragging their feet on this for a long time," said Matt Brockman, executive vice-president of the Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association in Fort Worth.

There's also a ban on Japanese beef coming into the United States, but that's an insignificant trade and this is not a question of reciprocity. Japan announced its 17th case of BSE on Friday.

U.S. producers are pressing for formal retaliation. In mid-February, U.S. Senators from cattle-producing states (including Texas) wrote to the Japanese ambassador in Washington, Ryozo Kato, calling for removal of the ban and pointing to good-faith efforts by the U.S. government and cattle producers to meet Japanese concerns.

"Regrettably, these attempts have been rejected by some in your government who are intent on stopping any resolution of this issue by using unrealistic requirements and dubious science," the senators said.

Last week, after a meeting with Kato, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, complained of "continued obstinacy" of the Japanese government.

Among the over-the-top requirements in place in Japan is individual testing of each head of cattle for BSE. From the American standpoint, according to the annual report in late March from the U.S. trade rep, "the United States has addressed all science and safety concerns."

But not much has really happened except an intensification of the shell game in Tokyo.

Condoleezza Rice got the full talk-but-do-nothing treatment during her debut visit to Tokyo as secretary of State. The importance of resuming imports was stressed to Tom Schieffer, President Bush's former baseball partner, before he left to take up his post as ambassador in Tokyo, where he arrived Friday.

Even the prospect of moving away from individual testing prompted some push-back in the Japanese press, with the leading Asahi Shimbun newspaper saying: "The proposed review of the testing system should not immediately lead to the lifting of the ban on U.S. beef imports."

The editorial called for a new round of talks at Japan's Food Safety Commission. That's exactly the sort of thing that's not needed. Interestingly, some Japanese restaurants that had grown to depend on U.S. beef (as many of the inexpensive beef-noodle bowl joints had) asked customers to sign petitions against the ban.

Yoshinoya, the fast-food giant with branches in the United States, Friday reported its first loss in 24 years and blamed it on the gathering effect of the ban.

With the great reluctance that should always accompany taking the step, perhaps it's time for formal retaliation.

In its annual report on barriers at the end of last month, the Office of Trade Representative put the Japanese ban on U.S. beef near the top of its to-do list. "We will continue to press Japan on this important issue at all levels of the U.S. government until U.S. beef exports resume," the OTR report said.

Let's hope that's not squishy diplomatic boilerplate, because the Bush administration has been talking a good game but not getting results. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns has complained of the "enormously slow" Japanese movement toward any lifting of the ban but expressed faith in negotiations as "far superior" to retaliation. Nice sentiment, Mr. Secretary, but possibly not in this case — at least after this long.

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