World

Japan moves closer to allowing North American beef

The Japanese Food Safety Commission, which prepares risk assessments other government agencies then consider, said beef from North American cattle under 21 months old is safe.

The slow process of reopening the Japanese market to beef from Canada and the United States inched ahead Thursday.

The Japanese Food Safety Commission, which prepares risk assessments other government agencies then consider, said beef from North American cattle – less than 21 months old – is safe.

That report will be sent to the departments of health and agriculture, which will prepare a recommendation for the government.

But before exports can resume, U.S. inspectors must agree to meet high standards, the commission said. "It's a question of trust," chairman Masaaki Terada said.

Japan banned U.S. beef in December 2003 when a cow was found to be infected with mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy).

The U.S. closed its border to Canadian cattle on May 20, 2003 after a cow from northern Alberta tested positive for BSE. Japan soon followed.

In early 2004, Canada's then-agriculture minister Bob Speller said Japan agreed to begin "bilateral technical discussions between officials to examine ways to re-establish Canadian beef exports to Japan as soon as possible."

Japan was Canada's third largest export market in 2002, the last year before the ban, buying $81 million worth of beef. The same year, the U.S. bought $1.8 billion worth and Mexico $200 million.

For U.S. ranchers, however, the Japanese market was very important, accounting for sales of $1.4 billion US in the year before the ban.

Reports in Japanese media suggested the government could make a decision next week, although Agriculture Minister Shoichi Nakagawa would not confirm them.