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Japs still in question

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Mike

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U.S. beef report

02/20/2006

The government of the United States has pledged that there will be no further exports to Japan of beef parts at risk of infection from bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). Should we put our faith in this latest claim?

Regrettably, the investigation findings announced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in its report Friday are not enough to wipe away the suspicions of Japanese consumers.

The report stresses that last month's inclusion of banned spinal column parts in a shipment of beef to Japan was a "unique incident" and does not indicate that U.S. meat is unsafe.

It concludes that the incident was the result of inadequate understanding and familiarity on the part of the exporter and the USDA inspector with the specific requirements for beef exports to Japan.

It also says measures will be taken to prevent a recurrence of such a situation, measures focused on boosting the ranks and training of inspectors and shoring up the checking system.

The factors cited by Washington making the incident a "unique" one are two-fold: first, that the mix-up occurred at a facility shipping beef to Japan for the very first time; second, that the meat in question, from calves just over four months of age, is sold on the U.S. market as unboned meat.

Nevertheless, the very fact that such a rudimentary mistake occurred in the first place only shakes our trust in the whole beef safety system.

In addition, it has been learned that cattle with difficulty walking, a warning sign of possible BSE contamination, were processed at U.S. slaughterhouses until just recently.

Washington is demanding the prompt resumption of beef exports to Japan. There are even some hard-line opinions in the U.S. Congress and the livestock industry that the market should be reopened immediately.

We hope that the United States will appreciate the fears of Japanese consumers, and take the concrete steps needed to fully live up to its agreement with Tokyo on this issue.

The way in which beef exports were resumed late last year can only be defined as hasty. Washington should understand that even if a somewhat roundabout route is taken to firmly re-establish Japanese consumer trust, such an approach has the potential for long-term gains.

In this sense, it is perfectly natural for Tokyo to be cautious when it comes to resuming shipments.

For that matter, it was because of blunders by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries that BSE-infected cattle were found in Japan in the first place.

Even though consumer distrust had yet to be allayed, the ministry rushed to resume U.S. beef imports without ensuring adequate safeguards were in place.

Yet another failure against this backdrop would destroy any remaining confidence in our food safety governance.

As a first step in the right direction, both governments must cooperate to meticulously inspect all U.S. beef processing facilities, both to ensure that all risky cow parts are being removed and that other efforts are in force to ensure uncompromising product safety.

This stance should extend beyond regular examinations. Snap inspections should be considered, too.

Although the discovery of the banned meat at Narita Airport last month is proof that the Japanese quarantine system works, we would nevertheless like to see that system further enhanced as well.

Having said all this, it is also prudent to avoid letting preliminary talks and studies drag on needlessly and escalate into trade disputes. Reciprocal retaliation would deal an unmeasurably stiff blow to Japan-U.S. ties.

We think that U.S. consumer concern about BSE is low. By global standards, on the other hand, Japan is extremely fierce in its regulation of beef imports.

It would appear that the lack of understanding of these contrasting viewpoints contributed to last month's elementary slip-up. There are also differences in national traits.

Balancing a sense of food security with free trade is difficult. We look forward to both sides making an effort to help bridge these gaps in thought and practice, one step at a time.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 19 (IHT/Asahi: February 20,2006)(IHT/Asahi: February 20,2006)
 

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