In early April, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack will head to Japan in an effort to bolster and open agricultural markets. When it comes to the Japanese beef market, he will be navigating a difficult path of cultural differences and a rancorous recent history.

In late 2003, following the discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) — more commonly known as “mad cow disease” — in a handful of U.S. cattle, the Japanese government imposed a ban on the importation of U.S. beef. Until the ban, Japan had been the largest importer of U.S. beef.

Three years later, following trade-war threats from some U.S. senators, the Japanese again opened their beef market to the United States, although with restrictions. Currently, only U.S. cattle up to 20 months old are accepted by the Japanese.

The ban and trade restrictions rankled many in Congress and the Bush administration who claimed the science touted by Japan to justify the moves was suspect. While many of the same political players stand by their original views on the Japanese actions, Vilsack — who will be making his fourth trade-related trip to Japan (the first three while he was governor of Iowa) — now wants to shift the focus and tamp down any hostilities.

“It’s safe to say the bilateral United States/Japanese relationship is extraordinarily important to the prosperity of both countries,” said Vilsack in during a March 30 press conference. “I look forward to strengthening that bond as we move forward.

“The reality is that both Americans and Japanese enjoy diets that are as diverse as any in the world. We currently enjoy a bilateral agricultural trade relationship that is worth nearly $12 billion…

“I look forward to discussing a variety of issues with a number of Japanese officials. Hopefully, we’ll educate each other as we essentially represent new administrations.”

Vilsack will also discuss world hunger with his Japanese counterpart, Hirotaka Akamatsu, as the two nations have an “important role … in helping to feed the world and making sure we address issues of global food security in a cooperative way. We believe the Japanese and Americans, working together, can be a powerful force in combating hunger around the world.”

But U.S. ranchers will be pleased that beef will be high on the agenda.

“Obviously, we’ll talk about beef. That’s an issue important to (U.S.) producers but also important that it be discussed in the proper framework with the Japanese. My hope is as we continue (talks on beef) we develop a structure that will ultimately lead to a reopening of that market for Japanese consumers who, I think, are interested in having choice and quality at an affordable price. … It’s an opportunity for us to meet mutual needs.”

Japanese officials have suggested increasing the age of U.S. cattle eligible for import from 20 months old to 30 months.

“Initially, the reaction of the (Bush) administration was to not engage in those discussions in a significant way. We’ll listen closely and intently during this visit and see if there’s a way that conversation can be continued.”

A change in both countries’ political leaders has Vilsack striking a guardedly optimistic tone. “Both countries have relatively new administrations … and that creates an opportunity for us to develop a personal relationship and to focus on the benefits of allowing that relationship to once again involve a robust beef trade. … I have no illusions about how easy this will be — obviously, it will be difficult.”

Will Vilsack demand the Japanese government remove current restrictions on beef imports?

“We’d never make a demand. … This is really about friends talking to each other about each others’ needs. Were I the agricultural minister in Japan, I’d obviously be concerned about my consumers and the opportunity for them to have quality choice at an affordable cost.”

Have other beef exporters to Japan become so entrenched that the United States may not get the market back?

“I’m confident we can compete any place, anywhere — both in terms of quality and cost. We just have to be given that opportunity. Even though there may be established markets, I remember vividly being in Japan with an Iowa (beef) delegation … and there was a real interest and desire to purchase American beef. In the past, it has had a very high level of acceptance … and appreciation for high quality. We simply have to reacquaint Japanese consumers with that and we’ll get our share of the market.”

Another reason for Vilsack’s trip: President Obama has tasked all cabinet secretaries with export potential “to work collectively towards an overall doubling of American exports,” said Vilsack. “That’s a fairly aggressive effort.

“The USDA currently has a trade surplus with the rest of the world. … The beef trade with Japan — and with other countries that have had problems in the past with (U.S.) beef — represents a significant opportunity to work towards meeting the president’s goal.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com