Japan, the world's biggest consumer of beef products, may be close to lifting that nation's year-long ban on imported cattle from the United States.

Last month, according to Associated Press reports, a Japanese government panel of advisors recommended that Japan open limited trade with the United States, and specifically grade A40 beef.

That grade derives from cattle aged between 12 and 17 months.

It has been more than one year since a cow, born in Canada, was detected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), more commonly known as mad cow's disease, in Washington state — spurring the Japanese blockade, along, temporarily, with bans in other nations.

About three months ago, Japan seemed receptive to a pledge by USDA officials to more vigorously inspect for the disease.

But, it's no guarantee that Japan's legislators will accept the recommendation: Critics' worries about importing contaminated beef remain vocal — especially after the recent, long-suffering death of a Japanese man was determined to have been caused by eating tainted beef in England in 1989.

Since BSE was initially found in Japan in 2001, 15 animals have been found to have the disease. But, no human cases of the disease caused from eating meat in Japan have been recorded, and Japanese officials partially attribute it to efforts to screen every slaughtered cow slated for the nation's food supply.

The possibility that Japan may lift its ban on U.S. beef could not come fast enough for the U.S. beef industry, which has been shut out of what was an annual $1.7 billion in beef sales to Japan prior to the ban.

The Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association recently raised the political stakes, publicly suggesting that unless Japan reopened beef trade, the U.S. government should pursue imposing its own economic sanctions against Japan.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, members of the House of Representatives Agriculture Committee held a hearing to review the guidelines recently established by U.S. officials for importing Canadian cattle.

In January, USDA delayed adoption of recently devised regulations for regions that minimize the risk of introducing BSE into the United States, and placed Canada in the “minimal-risk category” because of that country's risk-mitigation measures.

“According to the World Organization for Animal Health guidelines, a country may be considered a BSE minimal risk country if it has less than two cases per million cattle over 24 months of age during each of the previous four consecutive years,” said Ron De Haven, administrator, U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services.

“Considering Canada has roughly 5.5 million cattle over 24 months of age, under OIE guidelines, they could detect up to 11 cases of BSE in this population and still be considered a minimal risk country, as long as their risk mitigation measures and other preventative measures were effective.”

USDA Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns has requested that U.S. officials, however, expedite consideration of part of the plan (originally scheduled to go into effect beginning March 7) that permits imports of animals 30 months and older for slaughter, in addition to beef from over 30-month animals as the “next step” in trade with Canada.

“We remain very confident that the combination of the rules' requirements, in addition to the animal and public health measurements that Canada has in place to prevent the spread of BSE, along with the extensive U.S. regulatory food-safety and animal-health systems, provide the protection to U.S. consumers and livestock,” Johanns said.


e-mail: abell@primediabusiness.com