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Tough Words Exchanged on Beef

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Feb 13, 2005
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Tough Words Exchanged on Beef

06/22 12:21

-Japanese See Arrogance, Threats in U.S. Comments

WASHINGTON (Kyodo) -- Senior U.S. Agriculture Department officials and visiting Japanese lawmakers exchanged tough words Tuesday over Japan's 18-month-old ban on American beef imports, the lawmakers said.

U.S. Agriculture Undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agriculture Services J.B. Penn "threatened" the Japanese multiparty delegation in a meeting by saying that the patience of the U.S. government, Congress and industries is reaching its limit, the lawmakers said.

"The tone of his comments was that of threatening us," delegation chief Kenji Yamaoka told reporters, adding that the Japanese lawmakers countered by expressing concern over the U.S. inspection system on mad cow disease and urging Penn and other senior department officials to proceed with talks based on "scientific" grounds.

"We told them that we are the buyer and the United States is the seller so the seller should listen and adopt what the buyer wants," Yamaoka said. "The U.S. insistence was something like we are the most advanced nation regarding beef so just listen and follow us."

Penn also told the delegation that the beef issue is not a farm trade problem anymore and has become an overall trade dispute, warning that it will reverberate to various other areas and undermine bilateral ties if Japan fails to lift the import ban immediately, Yamaoka said.

The delegation is composed of members of the House of Representatives Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Committee. Yamaoka of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan chairs the committee.

In the meeting lasting about four hours, the delegation was also briefed by various senior department officials in charge of mad cow disease.

Japan was the largest importer of U.S. beef before it imposed the ban in December 2003, when the United States discovered its first case of mad cow disease.

Noting recent opinion surveys showed that 65% of Japanese consumers are opposed to resuming imports, the Japanese lawmakers conveyed their concerns over the U.S. inspection system, including safety measures for slaughtering cattle and verification of cattle ages.

The U.S. officials stressed that American beef is safe and that consumption has not decreased since the first case was confirmed.

The Japanese lawmakers argued that consumer behavior in Japan is different, saying that Japanese consumption dropped 40 percent after Japan's first case of mad cow disease was discovered in October 2001 and has not yet fully recovered despite the quick introduction of blanket testing of all slaughtered cattle.

Penn blasted Japan for keeping the ban even after the two nations agreed last October to resume imports of beef from animals aged up to 20 months, the lawmakers said.

But the lawmakers emphasized that they have been told the October deal "was not an agreement but a common understanding" for Japan to work on domestic procedures toward such an import resumption.

Even if the government takes it as an agreed commitment, "we have not been told that and we as legislators as well as consumers will not accept it," Yamaoka said.

In the October compromise deal, Japan backed off from its demand that the United States also carry out the same blanket testing on all cattle for exports to Japan, and the U.S. side agreed to testing of cattle aged up to 20 months instead of 30 months.

Rejecting repeated U.S. calls for setting a timetable for quickly resuming imports, the Japanese government maintains it needs to wait for approval from the independent Food Safety Commission.

The commission is set to ease the blanket testing to exclude cattle aged up to 20 months, and is expected to approve imports of U.S. beef, possibly this summer.

But uncertainty has recently increased as the United States has found a possible second case of mad cow disease.

The new case, if confirmed, is likely to raise questions over U.S. testing procedures. The animal had been announced to be free of the disease after testing negative in a confirmation test but later turned out to be positive in a different internationally recognized retest recommended by the department's Office of the Inspector General, which has been working to improve the disease-related activities.

The department has sent a sample to a reference laboratory in Weybridge, Britain, which is recognized by the World Organization for Animal Health. Its test result is expected as early as this week.

The U.S. officials told the Japanese lawmakers that the animal was a "downer" banned from food supply and was aged above 20 months, saying it was unrelated to the issue of Japan's import resumption.

The lawmakers said they were not fully satisfied with the explanation as it involved food safety but did not go further into the matter because the test result is still not available.

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