Japan imported its first shipment of US beef since January yesterday, resuming a once-booming business that has been crippled for nearly three years over fears of mad cow disease.
The 5.1 tonnes of US chilled beef arrived on a cargo flight at Narita airport, just east of Tokyo, and its importer and government officials were expected to inspect it today, said Health Ministry official Masanori Imagawa.
Japan banned US beef in December 2003 after the first case of mad cow disease in the US. That ban was eased in December last year, but was reimposed after forbidden spine bones were found in an imported shipment of veal in January.
Yesterday's shipment, which follows the latest easing of the beef ban on July 27, came from US beef giant Cargill Inc and was imported by Costco Wholesale Japan, the Japanese unit of the US retailer.
Costco employees, airport inspectors and Health Ministry officials were to scrutinize the entire shipment in a three-tiered process to make sure no banned products slip through, said Imagawa, who is in charge of customs and quarantine.
Previously, officials inspected only part of the shipments.
"We'll go through all boxes to make sure there is no problem, so inspection will probably take all day," Imagawa said.
Japan was a huge consumer of US beef before December 2003, importing some US$1.4 billion worth and creating its most lucrative overseas market. Cheap and tasty, the meat was a favorite in ubiquitous beef and rice shops.
However, concerns over mad cow disease, known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, have severely damaged the Japanese faith in the safety of the imports. Those fears were compounded by the faulty shipment in January.
Recent public polls have showed the majority of Japanese consumers are planning to stay away from US beef, and major restaurants and supermarkets have said they have no immediate plans to sell it.
"I won't eat it, no way," Reiko Iwai, a 57-year-old housewife, said while shopping at a downtown Tokyo supermarket. "I don't trust the safety of US beef and its inspection process, especially after the repeated problems."
The reopening of the market followed a rigorous series of meetings, public hearings and inspections of US beef processing plants.