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From: TSS ()
Subject: Re: Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns Gaggle regarding Japanese Beef Issues
Date: June 28, 2006 at 6:53 am PST

In Reply to: Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns Gaggle regarding Japanese Beef Issues posted by TSS on June 27, 2006 at 6:37 pm:


BEEF SAFEGUARDS
Japan's caution riles ranchers
U.S. officials not eager to take drastic steps big customer wants


By DAVID IVANOVICH
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau

W ASHINGTON - When does caution become overkill?

That's the question at the center of the United States' struggle to pry open Japan's borders and resume shipping beef across the Pacific.

Japanese consumers have strong concerns about the United States' safeguards against mad cow disease, polls there have indicated.

But the American beef industry and federal regulators alike are reluctant to take the kind of dramatic — and costly — steps Japan has implemented.

Many ranchers have opposed a mandatory national identification system to track cattle. South Korean inspectors found some meatpackers have been slow to create separate slaughter operations for American and Canadian cattle, a requirement for exports there. And the Agriculture Department slapped down a Kansas beef processor wanting to test all cows it slaughters for the brain-wasting ailment.

Indeed, USDA officials have made no secret about their desire to scale back the $1 million-a-week surveillance program established to guard against the disease.


Concerns unfounded?
Many in the beef industry — as well as the federal government — declare other countries' concerns about the safety of U.S. beef unfounded, the risks virtually nil.

After all, the United States has tested more than 740,000 animals but discovered only three cases of the disease, a far cry from the outbreaks experienced in countries like Japan and Great Britain.

But it makes for a poor marketing strategy, critics say.

U.S. officials must take the concerns of other nations more seriously, argued Bill Bullard, chief executive officer of the Billings, Mont.-based Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stock-
growers of America.

"They're violating a fundamental business practice," Bullard said. "If you do not do what your customer requests, you won't stay in business long."

Japan, once the United States' largest beef customer, buying $1.3 billion worth annually, closed its borders to beef exports in December 2003, after the nation's first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, was confirmed. Mad Cow disease has been linked to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a deadly illness in humans.


Texas was hurt
Some 50 other countries did likewise. U.S. beef exports nose-dived, no small blow to Texas, the nation's No. 1 cattle raiser, accounting for 40 percent of all exports, according to U.S. Agriculture Department data.

The federal government responded by launching its mad cow surveillance program, targeting animals unable to walk or showing signs of neurological disorders for testing.

Last December, Japan reopened its borders, only to slam the door shut six weeks later after a Brooklyn processing plant shipped banned animal parts to Japan.

Then last week, Japan raised hopes trade might soon resume again, after Japanese inspectors certify U.S. plants have instituted what they deem adequate safeguards.

The timing of the announcement likely was not accidental. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is to meet with President Bush at the White House on Thursday.

Over the next month, Japanese inspectors are scheduled to visit U.S. meatpacking facilities to ensure that exporters meet some stringent requirements, including a rule that bans shipment of beef from animals more than 20 months of age.


Not very optimistic
"Upon completion of the audits, Japan has agreed to expeditiously resume beef trade," Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said last week.

But American cattle raisers are not particularly optimistic, frustrated by what Burt Rutherford, a spokesman for the Texas Cattle Feeders Association, called "the stalling tactics that Japan has shown."

Japanese Agriculture Minister Hiroshi Nakagawa told reporters in Japan the resumption of trade could be delayed if "any problems were found."

So is the U.S. ready?

Earlier this month, South Korean inspectors completed their tour of more than three dozen U.S. plants, observing our mad cow safeguards.

Seven flunked the audit, USDA officials confirmed.

"They had a misunderstanding that the U.S. would be segregating U.S. and Canadian beef," USDA spokesman Ed Lloyd said. "We're not processing that way."

Lloyd characterized the issues raised by the inspectors as "really very minor," but the segregation issue proved to be a deal killer for South Korea, which does not accept Canadian beef exports.

Bullard argued that meatpackers didn't want to spend the cash to make the changes the South Koreans are demanding.

USDA officials ignored requests to provide the names of the companies that own the seven plants the Koreans cited.

Industry officials and regulators alike dismiss suggestions American consumers might have cause for concern that foreign inspectors found meatpacking plants here wanting.

At a time when the U.S. meat industry is celebrating the centennial of the Federal Meat Inspection Act, U.S. beef is recognized as "the gold standard worldwide," said Janet Riley of the American Meat Institute in Washington.

"These are not food safety issues," the USDA's Lloyd said. If they were, Lloyd argued, the USDA would be taking action.

Others have less confidence in the department.

"Korea should be concerned; so should Japan," argued Michael Hansen, a research associate at Consumers Union, adding: "It's like the U.S. has its head in the sand."


Other setbacks
The Korean inspections are not the only setback the United States has suffered on its mad cow protections in recent weeks.

The U.S. coordinates its mad cow testing at a research and testing at the National Animal Disease Center in Ames, Iowa.

In May, the Agriculture Department postponed the launch of a major research project on mad cow, after two animal caretakers raised questions about the facility's waste disposal practices.

The department has collected a panel of experts to review procedures there and make an assessment by the end of August. USDA officials say they are confident the panel will approve the agency's waste disposal procedures.

Charles Morrison, president of the East-West Center in Honolulu, said the Japanese and Koreans demonstrate "a tremendous amount of pickiness."

"The inspection systems seem to want to have zero risk, and sometimes I think it seems a little bit unrealistic to us," Morrison said.

To prod the Japanese to resume the beef trade, "you have to remove all the excuses they have," Morrison said.

The industry is feeling some urgency to get this trade issue resolved.

"We're seeing supplies build, cattle supplies and beef product suppliers," noted Matt Brockman, executive vice president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.

"We have got to get these markets reopened," Brockman said.

But the Japanese government is not just responding to protectionist forces in the country wanting to avoid competition with American beef. Polls in Japan have shown that many consumers there remain wary of U.S. meat exports.

Arkansas City, Kan.-based beef processor Creekstone Farms Premium Beef estimates it has lost $100 million because of the mad cow scare.

In a bid to respond to Japanese consumers' concerns, Creekstone proposed testing every animal for the disease.

But USDA officials, citing the 1913 Virus, Serum and Toxin Act, forbade the company from conducting such tests, arguing only government had such authority.


Producer files suit
Finally in March, Creekstone sued the Agriculture Department in federal court, arguing the government's response was "irrational" and "capricious."

USDA officials refused to comment on the lawsuit. But back in April 2004, when Creekstone first proposed conducting the tests, Bill Hawks, then undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, issued a statement contending that use of the test in this manner "would have implied a safety aspect that is not scientifically warranted."

Creekstone CEO John Stewart said in an interview that he doesn't believe 100 percent testing is really necessary from a food safety standpoint.

"But that's not the issue," Stewart said. "Our Japanese customers are skittish on this issue. And if they want it, why wouldn't we go ahead and do that? If it makes them feel better, why not?"

david.ivanovich@chron.com

http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/business/4008347.html

TSS




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