Japanese stores ditched US beef products yesterday amid renewed mad cow fears and officials demanded an explanation after a contaminated meat shipment prompted Japan to restore a US beef import ban.
Japan announced late on Friday that it was halting all US beef imports after inspectors found cattle backbone material in a beef shipment from Atlantic Veal & Lamb Inc, just weeks after Tokyo lifted its two-year ban on US beef.
Japanese officials have reacted angrily.
"The impermissible has happened," Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said yesterday in Shimonoseki, southern Japan.
"Japan will certainly not resume imports until investigations into the matter are complete," Abe said, adding he would lodge a protest with US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, in Japan on a three-day visit, at a meeting tomorrow.
Foreign Minister Taro Aso said that Japan's trust in the US would "deteriorate rapidly" unless the situation was resolved.
The officials' comments came as the US announced it would dispatch a delegation of agricultural officials to Japan in an attempt to salvage what was once the most lucrative market for US beef. Japan bought about US$1.4 billion worth in 2003.
At the request of US Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, the delegation, would "assure the Japanese government and public that the US is taking every necessary step to ensure compliance with requirements for exporting beef to Japan," according to a statement by the US Embassy in Tokyo.
But Japanese businesses have reacted quickly to the debacle.
Yoshinoya D&C Co, which runs a popular beef-and-rice restaurant chain, yesterday postponed plans to reintroduce US beef at its 1,016 eateries, citing "grave problems with US compliance standards."
Major deli chain Rock Field Co said that it was pulling US beef products from its stores until consumer confidence is restored, after having introduced US meat earlier this week.
"With all this negative publicity, consumers might not trust US beef for a while" even if imports are resumed, said Masao Takehara, spokesman for the Kobe-based company, adding the firm will rely for now on Australian beef.
Japan imposed a blanket ban on imports in December 2003 after mad cow disease was detected in a US cow. The ban was lifted on Dec. 12, but only for meat from animals aged 20 months or younger with spines, brains, bone marrow and other parts thought to pose a higher mad cow risk removed.
Johanns yesterday called the contaminated shipment "an unacceptable failure," saying he has ordered unannounced checks at US meat processing plants.
But national consumer organization Shodanren called into question the reliability of US facilities, saying US measures to reduce mad cow risks were insufficient.
The national daily, Asahi Shimbun, echoed the group's suspicions.
"Our fears have come true," the paper said in its editorial.
"To regain our trust, the US must fundamentally review its safety standards," it said.
Critics also attacked Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and his government for resuming imports too hastily.
"The government bowed to US pressure and put President [George W.] Bush's wishes ahead of the safety of Japanese consumers. I consider that a huge error of judgment," said Yukio Hatoyama, secretary-general of the main opposition, the Democratic Party of Japan.