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Monday, Aug. 2, 2004

JAPANESE PERSPECTIVES

Supply of safe beef large enough to ignore odd U.S. trade demands


The question of whether to lift the import ban on U.S. beef is being closely watched, especially in terms of how it relates to another issue of high public interest -- when will people be able to eat "gyudon (beef bowls)" again?

A report issued July 22 by a joint Japanese-U.S. panel showed some signs of a compromise forming between the two countries. In the report, the two sides agreed that blanket testing of all slaughtered cattle, which has been mandated in Japan since the first outbreak of mad cow disease here in 2001, is technically limited at detecting the accumulation of abnormal prions in young cows.

The United States meanwhile offered to provide government certification ensuring the elimination of high-risk cow parts, such as brains and spinal cords, from American beef. However, there remains a basic gap between Japan's basic stance of prioritizing meat safety in the inspection process, and the U.S. stance of moving away from rigorous inspection and more toward general surveillance of mad cow disease.

Japan and the U.S. are scheduled to hold director-level talks as early as August to discuss conditions for resuming American beef imports. But a concrete solution may be difficult to achieve, given lingering concerns over the issue, such as fresh suspicions that new cases of the brain-wasting disease have surfaced in the U.S.

We first have to realize that the current ban on U.S. beef imports has not seriously inconvenienced Japanese consumers. It's not like you can't find beef in Japanese supermarkets. There are abundant supplies of non-U.S. beef on many store shelves. In fact, imports of Australian beef have shown double-digit increases in recent months -- a reminder of how tough competition can be in the global beef market.

It used to be said that meat from Australia's grass-fed cows isn't suitable for Japanese-style cooking. But joint efforts on both sides -- such as feeding the cows grain at certain stages of development to increase the proportion of fat in their meat -- have been successful in adjusting Aussie beef so that it matches Japanese tastes.

With the birthrate declining and the population aging more rapidly than ever, more Japanese consumers are putting priority on food safety and healthy eating habits, and beef consumption is not expected to rise sharply in the future. In addition, liberalization of farm trade has created more dietary choices in Japan, so Japanese consumers will not necessarily be inconvenienced if they cannot eat American beef.

Furthermore, Japanese consumers are increasingly favoring quality -- albeit at a higher cost. In Japan, where the income gap between the haves and the have-nots isn't as wide as it is in the U.S., the middle class still accounts for a major part of the population, and consumers are no longer attracted to goods that are merely cheap. Therefore, suppliers of the Japanese market, including those from overseas, have been trying to provide added value to their products -- such as safety -- in order to differentiate them from those of their rivals.

Under the current circumstances, some U.S. beef exporters have offered to provide blanket testing of their cows as required by Japan, and top officials of the U.S. suppliers have visited Japan to examine the situation supermarkets are facing here.

However, the U.S. government has been thwarting the moves of the American firms, saying there is no scientific basis for blanket testing. But given that a considerable number of people have died of mad cow disease, which, by the way, has a long incubation period, how can the U.S. insist that blanket testing has no scientific significance just because there's a limit to its ability to detect abnormal prions in young cows?

The egotistic interests of the major meat-packing firms -- which are also afraid of footing the testing costs -- and the political pressures linked to such interests, appear to be at play here. But large numbers of American consumers are reportedly starting to eat beef Japanese-style -- by tasting parts they had previously tended to avoid. Thus, the question of whether to conduct blanket testing should be a concern for U.S. consumers as well.

On the one hand, there are consumers who want to buy safe products, even though they may be costly. On the other, there are producers and exporters who are trying to respond to such needs. Isn't it strange that the U.S. government, which calls itself a champion of freedom and security, is trying to prevent supply and demand from meeting each other? What has happened to the U.S. logic -- used repeatedly in past bilateral trade disputes -- that liberalization gives consumers greater freedom of choice?

I do not mean to argue here that all American beef cattle must be tested. There may be American consumers who prefer inexpensive beef. But the U.S. meat companies that want to perform blanket testing should at least be given the freedom to do so, just as Japanese consumers should be allowed to pursue food safety as a priority in their lives.

Teruhiko Mano is a professor at Seigakuin University.


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