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From: TSS ()
Subject: WAR OF RHETORIC? Easing USA mad cow beef ban seen as missing chance to let consumers rule
Date: November 14, 2005 at 7:11 pm PST

Easing beef ban seen as missing chance to let consumers rule

Staff writer

Yoshinoya D&C Co. executives, intent on reviving the restaurant chain's trademark beef-on-rice bowls as quickly as possible, are calling U.S. meatpackers to find out how much beef they can get and at what price.
Meanwhile, Foreign Ministry officials are preparing to assure President George W. Bush, who meets Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in Kyoto on Wednesday, that U.S. beef imports may resume as early as year's end.

For all appearances, Japan is ready to lift the nearly two-year-old ban on U.S. beef put in place when a Canadian-born holstein in Washington state tested positive for mad cow disease in December 2003.

This comes despite the conclusion of the government's food safety panel last month that it is "extremely difficult" to assess the risk of mad cow disease in the United States due to "inadequate data."

According to panel member Kiyotoshi Kaneko, it is "far from clear" that U.S. farmers and food processing plants are complying with standards to minimize the risk of consumers contracting the human variant of the disease, formally called bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

Some trade experts say Japan will pass up a golden opportunity if it lifts the import ban in such a situation.

By giving in to U.S. pressure on a food safety issue -- where opinion polls show the government has strong public support -- Japan will miss "a rare chance to shift the balance of power between consumers and producers in one of the most prominent food industries," according to Kazuhito Yamash!ta, senior fellow at the Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry.

If Japan, the world's richest food importer, makes it clear that it is putting consumer interests first, it could help clinch the ongoing Doha Round of market liberalization talks under the World Trade Organization, he said.

So far, the most and least powerful agricultural blocs have been unable to put global trade interests above domestic farming interests.

But Yamash!ta argued that consumer interests are far more important than farm interests for the economy.

"Lower tariffs mean lower prices for consumers and more exports for poorer countries," he said. "Meanwhile, an emphasis on food safety will work to the advantage of domestic farmers who are innovative."

True, concerns about food safety have helped domestic farmers who raise cattle without growth agents and provided beef that's traceable throughout its production cycle. It's also been a boon to an industry hit hard when Japan scrapped import quotas on U.S. beef and opened its markets in 1988.

Between 1988 and 1990, the average price of 1 kg of typical Japanese meat (Class 3, Grade A) then fell about 25 percent. That translated into loss of roughly 200,000 yen for a 650-kg holstein. Some Japanese farmers resorted to U.S.-style raising methods, mixing vitamins and hormones into cow feed to get the most growth out of less food. Others shifted production to high-end meat, like Kobe beef.

The influx of cheaper U.S. beef caused many smaller domestic farms to shift production away from beef. In 1995, five years after all quotas were lifted on U.S. beef, 169,700 farms raised cattle for beef consumption. In 2001, the number was down to 110,100.

The industry as a whole, however, showed more than 40 percent growth between 1990, when all quotas on U.S. beef were lifted, and its peak in 2000. Then, Japanese consumers ate 1.09 million tons of beef, of which close to 70 percent was imported.

If and when Japan reopens its doors to U.S. beef, the supplier-dominated beef industry will likely be subject to strict demands from consumers.

The sad truth for U.S. negotiators is that, in nearly two years' time, their rhetoric has failed to convince Japanese consumers that precautions taken to minimize BSE risk are being carried out.

In August, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service tallied 1,036 cases where food processors failed to comply with the USDA's mad cow disease safeguards concerning the removal of high-risk parts, including the brain and spinal cord, that are thought to contain high concentrations of prions, the infectious BSE agent.

Wary consumer rights groups are demanding that the Japanese Agricultural Standards Association, an agricultural ministry affiliate, require the food industry to disclose the origins of all beef.

The food safety panel said in its final report on Oct. 31 that the difference in risk level between U.S. and Japanese beef was extremely small, if high-risk parts like spines, eyes and brains are removed and the beef comes from cows are no older than 20 months.

But food safety advocates argue that the U.S. record of testing 10 percent of all cows -- only those that show visible signs of disease -- looks shabby compared with Japan's requirement that all slaughtered beef cows 21 months or older be tested. Some local governments still test all cows.

Japan can afford to claim "the customer is king" on the issue, Yamash!ta said.

Japan's caloric consumption of meat, which stood at 15.4 percent of the diet in 2004, was a scant 3.7 percent back in 1960.

"We didn't eat meat before, and we can always go back," said an agriculture ministry official involved in free-trade agreement negotiations.

The Japan Times: Nov. 15, 2005
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