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Speculation grows over expanded US beef access to Japan

Jon Condon, 18/10/2011

Access for US beef exports to Japan may expand next year to include product from cattle up to 30 months of age, credible Japanese sources have suggested.

The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper last Thursday quoted Japanese government sources as saying the Government would likely ease import restrictions on US beef, imposed since 2003 after an outbreak of BSE in the US, as early as the middle of next year.

It suggested the government may raise the cattle age limit for US beef exported to Japan from under 20 months of age to 30 months or younger, following talks between Japanese Prime Minister Noda and US President Obama at a Japan-US summit meeting being held next month.

Any agreement reached between the two would still have to be passed by Japan’s Diet, however.

Over the eight-year history of market access restrictions of US beef entering Japan since the discovery of BSE in the US in 2003, it has not been uncommon for speculation to mount over a protocol adjustment, in the lead-up to important meetings between the two countries.

Such moves have consistently been blocked outright by Japanese legislators, however.

Throughout the eight-year market access saga, the US has consistently shown its dissatisfaction with Japan's position, arguing it is not science-based, and has at times issued strongly-worded statements to voice its disapproval. As recently as September, President Obama urged Prime Minister Noda to “work toward fully opening up the beef market” at a US-Japan summit meeting held in New York.

None of this has budged Japan’s strong food safety-minded approach to the issue. Despite US government calls for all age restrictions on beef imports to be abolished, most Japanese government officials oppose such a move.

"It's very difficult to abolish the restrictions from the viewpoint of food safety," a Health, Labour and Welfare ministry official said this week.

The Yomiuri Shimbun said its sources suggested the Government planned to consider public opinion on the matter before consulting with the Japanese Food Safety Commission.

With around 95 percent of cattle slaughtered in the US below 30 months of age, a policy move as described would greatly expand the country’s capacity to export to Japan, in direct competition with Australia.

In 2007, the Japanese government suggested that US beef imports be restricted to cattle aged below 30 months. But the US government did not agree, calling for all age restrictions to be dropped as a matter of principle. That strategy ultimately backfired, greatly restricting the country’s ability to export under the 20-months rule ever since.

In April last year, the US Government finally softened its demands on Japan, bowing to Tokyo's restriction proposal allowing only imports of boneless beef from cattle aged 30 months or younger.

As a measure of the impact of the bans, under the current protocol, Japanese imports of US beef last year reached 99,000 tonnes, down from 240,000t in 2002, the last year before the ban was imposed.

To coincide with a possible relaxation of import restrictions, the Japanese Government may also relax inspections on its domestically-produced beef, sources say. The current target age for BSE inspection on domestic cattle is 21 months or older, however if the age limit on US beef is relaxed to 30 months, it is likely that inspections of domestic beef will also be changed to reflect this.

Current speculation about Japan’s likelihood of accepting a more liberal age allowance on US imported beef is also fuelled by Japan’s interest in joining the important Trans-Pacific Partnership multi-lateral free trade agreement – a move backed publicly by new Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.

Japan’s desire to join the TPP is only likely to be enhanced by news this week of progress on a US/Korea FTA, sources say.

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