While leaders from the United States, Mexico and Canada continue to stress their close relationship, the coziness between the United States and its North American neighbors could prove to be a detriment when it comes to re-opening the beef trade with some countries.

Even with the United States government’s assurance that the Washington cow that tested positive for BSE originated in Canada, Japan still isn’t likely to re-open its borders to U.S. beef, Masahito Enomoto, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Counselor for the Embassy of Japan, told U.S. cattlemen gathered at the nation’s capitol Jan. 20 in support of country-of-origin labeling.

After the first case of BSE was discovered in Canada last May, Enomoto says Japan began asking U.S. packers to verify that U.S. beef products were not made from Canadian cattle.

“USDA told us they could trace all cattle involved in the Dec. 23 case within three to four days, but now it’s been three to four weeks and they still haven’t completed that task. That tells us that the United States does not truly have a trace-back system in place,” Enomoto says.

“Because the two industries in the United States and Canada are so integrated, we cannot be assured that U.S. beef products are from U.S. cattle only.”

Seemingly making his point, Bob Speller, Canadian Minister of Agriculture, says, “There’s no question that this industry is a North American industry. It’s probably one of the industries that is the most integrated within our North American context.”

At a recent meeting between agricultural officials in the United States, Mexico and Canada, Agricultural Secretary Ann Veneman pushed that point, announcing that they had agreed to enhance the cooperative processes already in place among the three countries to focus on BSE.

“It is vital, given our integrated markets that we work to harmonize our rules and processes regarding BSE. This will improve our ability to protect the food supply and public health, maintain consumer confidence, and bring about greater consistency in trade,” says Veneman.

Mexico’s Agriculture Secretary Javier Usabiaga called the recent meeting “a great opportunity to reinforce the relationship between the three countries but more so to increase the compromise between the three countries to save our North American herd and protect the North American consumer.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that Mexico is ready to re-open its borders to U.S. produced beef.

In an interesting twist, Mexico re-opened its beef trade with Canada last October, but is not currently accepting U.S. beef. That will happen, Usabiaga says, when “the United States implements the measures that they have offered to do, and they then satisfy the Mexican officials responsible for the health and sanitary conditions of the Mexican herd and they satisfy the Mexican consumer.

According to Veneman, the United States has either already implemented, or is in the process of implementing, the “aggressive regulations” announced in response to the BSE case.

Despite his country’s unwillingness to re-open its borders to U.S. beef, Usabiaga says, “The most secure beef in the world is the North Americans beef, regardless if it is from Mexico, from Canada, or it is from the United States.”

Responding to the apparent hypocrisy among the United States and its beef trading partners, Veneman has said, “It is true that when the single case was found in Canada and in each of the other countries that have found BSE, the United States has excluded their beef exports.

“In the case of Canada which was just last May, the United States worked fairly quickly to do a risk assessment and look at the least risk product and then allow what’s called “boneless boxed beef” to come back into our market and thereby resume a significant amount of trade into this market,” Veneman said. “We then published a regulation that is still pending regarding the lowest risk cattle that would be coming in for slaughter. That’s still under consideration.

“This has been a very difficult disease in terms of how countries have dealt with it with regard to trade. When it was first discovered in Europe it was a much greater outbreak. There were many animals. There was the question of ruminant-to-ruminant feeding. There were a lot of issues about the spread of this disease,” she says. “We know much more today than we did then.”

Other than to confirm that the United States is working to re-open the beef trade with Japan, Veneman says she can’t discuss any specific proposals being put forward by the United States.

e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com