Japan has ordered inspections of all US beef imported over the past month, a top official said yesterday, calling for a full explanation of a US violation of a bilateral beef pact before a fresh import ban can be lifted.
Japan halted US beef imports last week after inspectors found spinal bone, considered at risk of containing mad cow disease, in a US veal shipment. The halt came only a month after a two-year-old ban on US beef was partially lifted.
The calls for US action came as US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick met Japanese officials to pledge future US compliance with the pact. A delegation of US agriculture officials also headed to Japan yesterday.
Japanese officials were especially pointed in their criticism of US beef inspectors for letting banned material through. The government openly pushed for a resumption of imports last year, despite wariness among finicky consumers.
"The US had a duty to firmly observe the conditions for resuming imports, and it is regrettable that this duty was not observed," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe. "The US needs to firmly investigate into the cause of why this duty was not observed."
Abe said he would urge Zoellick in a meeting later in the day to take all possible measures to "eliminate the suspicions of Japanese consumers."
In the meantime, he said, no US beef would be allowed into Japan until Washington is able to provide a satisfactory report on how the violation happened and what preventative measures the US will take.
"As a safety measure, we have instructed the importing industries in Japan to do an independent inspection of all the US beef that has already been imported to make sure that there are no dangerous parts included," he said.
The import halt was a bitter reversal for US beef in Japan. Tokyo imposed a ban on American beef imports in 2003 after the first detection of mad cow disease in the US herd, and reopened it last month only to meat from cows aged 20 months or less.
The deal also excluded spines, brains, bone marrow and other parts of cattle thought to be at particularly high risk of containing the disease.
Prior to the ban, Japan had been US beef's most lucrative overseas market, buying some US$1.4 billion worth in 2003. The fresh halt came just as US officials were mounting an effort to get Japan to raise the age of cows it would accept beef from.
Zoellick on Sunday called the shipment of prohibited bone materials an unacceptable mistake in his meeting with Agriculture Minister Shoichi Nakagawa, and expressed "sincere regret" on behalf of the US, according to Michael Boyle, a spokesman for the US Embassy in Tokyo.
US industry groups say the recent veal shipment, though it contained spine material, was from calves less than six months old, and that mad cow disease hasn't been found in animals that young.