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Mad Max

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Apr 3, 2005
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Japan mad cow panel approves easier test policy
28 Mar 2005 09:41:54 GMT
Source: Reuters

By Aya Takada

TOKYO, March 28 (Reuters) - Under intense pressure from the United
States, Japan moved a step closer to easing a ban on U.S. beef on Monday
after the government won approval for plans to drop its policy of
testing all cattle for mad cow disease.

The resumption of beef trade appeared a long way off, however, as Japan
still must review U.S. steps to keep infected meat out of the food chain
before lifting the 15-month-old ban.

The Food Safety Commission (FSC) concluded a five-month discussion on
whether to allow the government to exclude cattle younger than 21 months
from mad cow testing, saying relaxation of the testing regime would
hardly increase the risk of contamination.

Approval of the easier policy by the food safety watchdog is a
precondition for Japan to implement an October 2004 agreement with the
United States to resume imports of American beef from cattle aged below
21 months without conducting mad cow testing.

Cattle below the age of 21 months are considered to be at low risk from
the brain-wasting disease.

"We have judged that setting a threshold for (cattle) age will only
pose a minor risk to human health," Yasuhiro Yoshikawa, the head of the
FSC's 12-member subcommittee studying the case, said at the meeting.

Japan banned American beef imports in December 2003 after the discovery
of the first U.S. case of the disease, formally known as bovine
spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

Before the ban, Japan was the top overseas customer for U.S. beef,
buying $1.4 billion worth in 2003.

Washington has expressed frustration with Japan's slowness in carrying
out the agreement to restart imports, prompting some U.S. lawmakers to
call for retaliatory sanctions against Japan.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made the issue a top agenda
item when she was in Tokyo earlier this month, but the government has
declined to give a timetable for ending the ban.

The Japanese government cannot intervene directly in the decisions of
the FSC -- an independent body of experts created in 2003 to conduct
risk assessment on food scientifically and to make policy
recommendations to relevant ministries.

Japan's policy of blanket BSE testing started in October 2001 after it
discovered its own first case of mad cow disease.

The strict measure was aimed at alleviating safety concerns among
consumers. Beef sales in Japan plunged more than 50 percent as people
shunned beef for fear of contracting Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, the
human form of mad cow disease.


The FSC will next formalise the conclusion of a subcommitte that has
been looking into the testing issue and give final approval to the
government in early May.

The government would then ask the commission to approve Japanese
resumption of U.S. beef imports.

After receiving the government's request, the FSC will then launch a
review of U.S. safety measures against mad cow disease to determine
whether they meet Japanese standards, a process that could take several

Although the FSC is under mounting pressure from the U.S. and Japanese
governments to make a quick decision, Japanese consumer groups want the
commission to be cautious, saying U.S. beef safety checks are too loose
compared with those of Japan.

"The United States is demanding Japan resume beef imports without
taking sufficient measures against mad cow disease," said Hiroko
Mizuhara, secretary-general of the Consumers Union of Japan.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released
a report that said the Food and Drug Administration was overstating the
industry's compliance with the animal feed ban and understating the
potential risk of BSE for U.S. cattle.

Last December, a federal meat inspectors union said U.S. meat plants
were allowing brains and spinal cords from older cattle to enter the
food supply, violating strict government regulations aimed at preventing
the spread of mad cow disease.

The United States also does not have a system to record the date of
birth for all American cattle, and has asked Japan to allow imports of
beef from cattle the U.S. government verifies as younger than 21 months
old by checking the maturity of meat and bone.

Japan has so far confirmed 16 cases of mad cow disease in its own herd.
Japan also confirmed last month its first case of the human variant
after the death of a man believed to have contracted the illness from
eating infected beef in Britain.

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