Analysis: Japan needs time to chew over end to US beef ban
TOKYO: Japan is under mounting American pressure to end a 15-month ban on US beef imports, but experts say Washington’s strategy could backfire if Tokyo opens its borders without the understanding of scientists and consumers.
Washington is frustrated about the pace at which former top buyer Japan has carried out an October pledge to reopen its market, worth $1.4 billion a year to the United States before America found its first case of mad cow disease in December 2003.
Tokyo will explain Japan’s progress and policy on mad cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, when US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visits Japan from Friday — with the import ban expected to be high on the agenda. Takashi Onodera, who belongs to the 12-member BSE subcommittee of Japan’s Food Safety Commission, said Washington’s pressuring Japan to swiftly open its borders to US beef could lead to even more closure in the market.
“Japan might become even more cautious and wrap its coat more tightly around itself,” said Onodera, also professor at Tokyo University’s School of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The subcommittee is reviewing Japan’s domestic policy on food safety, which is vital to resuming US beef imports. Rice is due to meet Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura during her first trip to Asia as secretary of state. Japanese officials have said they were unlikely to give her a timetable for lifting the ban.
Some US lawmakers have suggested economic retaliation against Japan, but Japanese government officials and analysts say such pressure is unlikely to influence Tokyo’s position in requiring concrete scientific evidence to assure public safety.
Koizumi, sensitive to growing frustration in Washington, spoke by phone with US President George W. Bush on the issue last week and said this week that it was important to maintain good relations with the United States. “We have never intended to put off” a decision to resume US beef imports, Kyodo news agency quoted Koizumi as telling a parliamentary panel on Thursday. “We don’t intend to protect the domestic livestock industry. We’d like to quickly create an environment that allows the public to eat beef safely.”
Scientists need more time: Onodera said some members of the panel studying Japan’s new safeguard measures wanted to hold thorough discussions so that they would not be accused of buckling under political pressure. “I think considerable time was taken in discussing the subject so that it would not look like politics had influenced the decision,” he said.
In October, the two countries agreed to resume shipments of beef from animals 20 months old or younger. Such cattle is considered at lower risk of contracting the disease, which can also be transmitted to humans. But the process has stalled as the two sides debate how to accurately tell the age of beef. Japan’s youngest case of the brain-wasting disease was in an animal aged 21 months. The latest development came last week when the Food Safety Commission said it was nearing a decision to approve Tokyo’s new safeguard measures against mad cow disease.
Approval of the new test policy by the commission is a precondition for Tokyo to implement the October agreement to resume imports of American beef from cattle aged below 21 months without conducting mad cow testing. But even if the commission clears this hurdle, it has to review the verification method offered by the United States after finalising the domestic policy. The results of these discussions also will be reviewed publicly before the government grants final approval.
“You really can’t tell when the scientists’ discussion will be concluded,” said Fuminori Ogata, an analyst at Tokyo-based commodities brokerage Himawari CX Inc. “If the current situation is prolonged and Japan gets more pressure from the United States, Prime Minister Koizumi may have to take a political decision by himself,” Ogata said.
Can live without it? Japan’s import ban has harmed some areas of the industry, but consumers are coping. In October, a study by UFJ Institute, a research arm of UFJ Bank, showed that the ban was likely to cause losses of 273.2 billion yen ($2.62 billion) for Japan’s meat-related industry last year. Japan’s “gyudon” beef-bowl restaurants are also suffering.
Last month, desperate afficionados lined up to eat Yoshinoya D&C Co.’s popular beef-on-rice dish using US meat, which the firm revived for just one day by thawing frozen stocks. “We’ve seen people lining up to eat Yoshinoya beef bowls on TV ... prices of some specific types of beef are surging, but in general I don’t think consumers are overly desperate,” Ogata said. —Reuters