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Long road to open the Japanese border

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Feb 10, 2005
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Southern Manitoba
Research slowed BSE decision

Mar 16, 2005 (The Yomiuri Shimbun - Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News via COMTEX) -- TOKYO -- The Food Safety Commission's delay in reaching a broad agreement to approve the relaxation of rules requiring blanket tests on cattle for bovine spongiform encephalopathy can largely be attributed to the difficulty of exploring a wide range of issues related to the nation's system of testing for the disease.

The commission's panel of experts, chaired by Tokyo University Prof. Yasuhiro Yoshikawa, concluded Friday that health hazards resulting from abolishing BSE tests on cattle aged less than 20 months would fall within the range of "negligible" to "very small."

The agreement was reached amid growing U.S. pressure to resume U.S. beef imports and increasing public criticism of the slow pace of the commission's deliberations.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry and the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry asked the commission in October for a report on the effects of the proposed new anti-BSE measures on human health.

Why did the commission take so much time? One reason could be the difficulty of the task.

When the commission made its interim report in September, it only had to demonstrate that the effectiveness of the BSE tests in detecting the disease was limited.

In the final report, the commission had to go a step further and evaluate the effects on human health if the tests were not performed.

To do this, the commission had to research the following points:

--How previous measures to prevent the spread of BSE had lowered the current risk of infection among cattle aged less than 20 months.

--What the risk of abnormal prion contamination in beef would be if the young cattle were processed into meat.

--How human health would be affected whether BSE tests were done or not.

Although the conclusion might have seemed simple, the work required to reach that conclusion was anything but.

The second reason for the delay was that the panel's deliberations did not proceed smoothly.

Panel members were increasingly distrustful of the officials of the commission's secretariat and of the method used to reach a consensus. As a result, the panel's first meeting stalled.

In addition, only one or two meetings were held every month.

Yoshikawa said, "There were various constraints as the panel required members from across the nation, all of whom had jobs, to get together."

But the two ministries should have clearly explained why they needed the report and demanded intensive discussions, as it concerns a problem that needs flexible, speedy action.

But the commission is not the sole entity to be blamed for the prolonged deliberations. First, the government's decision to relax domestic anti-BSE measures in preparation for resuming U.S. beef imports was problematic. After Japan banned U.S. beef imports in December 2003, the government demanded that the United States implement the same level of safety measures as the ones it had put in place.

From the beginning, it was obvious that the United States would reject a demand for blanket cattle tests, as the number of cattle raised in the country is huge.

The government's initial intention was to demand that the United States secure "the same level of safety" by removing specific risky parts from slaughtered cattle and implementing thorough measures to prevent contamination--measures that are more effective than blanket tests in assuring safety.

But at a House of Representatives Budget Committee meeting on Jan. 26 last year, then Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Yoshiyuki Kamei clearly stated, "BSE tests will of course be done," in a reply to repeated questions over whether "the same level of safety measures" would include blanket tests.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi echoed Kamei's words when he was asked to confirm the answer.

The statements in the Diet strengthened the idea that Japan should demand blanket tests in the United States.

Given that the implementation of blanket tests in the United States was highly unlikely to occur, the government's only choice was to begin reviews on domestic anti-BSE measures.

The commission will next examine the safety of resuming U.S. beef imports. To do this, it will have to pin down how complete measures against mad cow disease really are in the United States.

That will be an even more difficult task for the commission.

It must start now to make preparations, such as collecting data, to speed up the deliberations as much as possible.
Sounds like this may take a day or two for the "commission" to come to a decision!

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