Japan inches closer to more liberal US beef imports

Beef Central, 10/09/2012



Australia could come under more competitive pressure in the Japanese export market from the US some time early next year, if the consensus of opinion about recent regulatory and food safety developments in Japan prove correct.

Japan’s Prion Expert Investigation Committee finalised its risk assessment report last week, supporting alterations to the import protocols for US beef.

Under the changes signalled in the risk assessment, the current import protocol limiting US imported beef to animals 20 months of age or younger would see this lifted to 30 months, effectively increasing the volume of US beef eligible to be exported.  

The change had been proposed to the Food Safety Commission (FSC) by Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW) last December, together with the request to evaluate the safety of the BSE testing practice for the Japanese domestic beef.

According to the Japanese media reports, the Prion Committee – which resides under the FSC structure – has also clarified the safety of beef sourced from Canadian, French and Dutch cattle that are 30 months of age or younger. The assessment was also made that there will be no impact to human health if the BSE testing for the Japanese cattle is changed from 20 to 30 months.

Currently, all prefectural councils with cattle processing facilities in Japan continue BSE testing of all cattle regardless the age, with the Japanese government funding test kits used for animals older than 20 months.

The FSC is expected to conduct public hearing sessions upon receipt of a formal report from the Prion Committee, MLA reported last week.

The expert group will then be required to report back to MHLW which is responsible for administering the actual import protocols change. No official confirmation on the alteration schedule has been made by the Japanese government.

As has often happened in the past nine years, however, the significance of any technical or regulatory decisions made over BSE in Japan have often been over-rated by onlookers, and have rarely triggered any sudden changes to approved conditions.    

While the lifting of Japan’s age limit on US beef imports inches closer, it is still unlikely to take effect until sometime next year, US sources suggested last week.

The panel’s finding will go to Japan’s Health Ministry, which will invite comments from the Japanese public before a change is implemented. This could be later this year or early next year, a panel official said.

This time-frame is consistent with the slow pace of decisions seen so far this year. The expert panel met on July 24 to examine easing the age limit. News reports at that time suggested the limit might be lifted as early as November this year, which helped push-up US live cattle futures prices by their daily limit, in anticipation. This time, the US Futures market basically ignored last week’s development.

The panel’s recommendation, nonetheless, is a key step that might eventually lead to Japan again becoming the number one export market for US beef, for the first time since 2003. The US that year exported 376,000t to Japan worth $1.394 billion. The current 20-month age limit restricted exports to Japan in 2011 to 158,646t, valued at $874m.

The US’s first BSE case at the end of 2003 caused Japan to ban all US beef until July 2006.

The panel’s recommendation is an important step in Japan’s process of bringing its import regimen into conformance with international standards, the US Meat Export Federation said last week.

The change would likely lead to the expansion of US beef exports, to what is arguably the leading beef export market in the world, it said.

The 100-page report from the prion sub-committee of the FSC is scheduled to be submitted to the FSC’s food safety committee for review and public comments today, September 10.

The public comment period will last 30 days, after which the FSC will compile the comments and make any necessary changes to the final report. The report will then be submitted to the Japanese Ministry of Health for implementation, at which point the governments of Japan and the US will negotiate terms of the agreement.

 Although details have not been set, Japan is likely to send audit/verification teams to the US to conduct technical discussions to finalise the import rules. 


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