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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Veal blunder laid to bad communications

Breakdown in USDA inspection system not sign of weak regime: U.S.


By MAYUMI NEGISHI and YUMI WIJERS-HASEGAWA
Staff writers

The veal shipment that arrived in January containing banned spinal cords was an isolated incident and "does not indicate weakness in the overall U.S. beef processing, inspection or export systems," the U.S. Department of Agriculture said in a report released Monday.

News photo
A U.S. report explaining how a January veal shipment containing spinal cords, which are banned under a bilateral trade accord, maintains that it was an isolated error.

The report, which blames the error on bad communications, was compiled in response to questions submitted by Japan. But experts said that assurances alone won't be enough to win back consumer trust in American beef, and Japan is likely to continue its import ban.

"Japan distrusts U.S. beef. To overcome consumer distrust, the U.S. needs to put in checks and checks and more checks to minimize the risk of human error," said Kiyotoshi Kaneko, professor of physiology at Tokyo Medical University. "The new measures fall short."

In its response to Japan's queries, the U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service said the error was caused by a breakdown in communications between it and the Agricultural Marketing Service, which audits beef producers, and the FSIS, which is responsible for inspecting meat.

The field inspectors assigned to check the meat at Brooklyn, N.Y.-based beef producer Atlantic Veal and Lamb, Inc. were not aware that spinal cords -- a banned mad cow disease risk material -- were prohibited for shipment to Japan, the report said.

Atlantic Veal received approval to export to Japan from the AMS, part of the USDA, after the USDA held a conference call last December with FSIS managers to explain the requirements for exporting to Japan.

But the FSIS manager in charge of the Brooklyn area did not think he needed to attend because he was unaware of any firms in his area that were shipping or applying to ship to Japan. The manager was also not told that Atlantic Veal had later received approval to export to Japan, and so did not inform his field inspectors of the new requirements.

The inspectors at Golden Veal Corp., which supplied the meat to Atlantic Veal, were only responsible for checking that the produce was "safe, wholesome and accurately labeled," not whether it was eligible for shipping to Japan, the report said.

Under an agreement between Japan and the U.S., beef shipped to Japan must come from cattle under 21 months old, and high-risk materials, including brains, eyes and spinal cords, must be removed.

Those were the conditions Japan demanded before agreeing to partially lift its two-year-old ban on North American beef in December. The ban had been in place since the U.S. discovered its first case of mad cow in a Canada-born holstein.

Japan slammed its doors shut again when Atlantic Veal's tainted shipment arrived a month later.

To prevent the "unique incident" from happening again, the USDA announced that inspectors would be notified within five business days of any companies that win approval to ship beef to Japan. It further said it would provide training to inspectors who are checking companies awaiting approval.

The USDA also said it would conduct unannounced inspections of producers who ship to Japan to check that beef is properly prepared.

The report said the USDA was "confident" no other exporter shipped banned parts, citing audits, reviews and customer feedback.

The two companies involved in the incident had their certification to export to Japan revoked.

Kaneko, who was on the Food Safety Commission's prion panel, which set the conditions for resuming U.S. beef imports, was skeptical about U.S. safety measures.

"Increasing paperwork is not enough," Kaneko said.

"The U.S. made a promise to comply with the conditions. It broke that promise, and needs to realize it is now working from a position of low credibility."

The agriculture ministry, meanwhile, is not pushing to resume trade anytime soon.

At a news conference Monday, administrative vice farm minister Mamoru Ishihara said a conclusion can only be reached after the U.S. reply is translated and "fully scrutinized" and after another talk with U.S. experts.

The U.S. report is a reply to questions submitted by the ministry and arrived Saturday morning via e-mail. The translation was expected to be completed Monday evening.

When asked whether U.S. pressure to lift the beef ban will affect the ministry's decision, Ishihara said: "Food safety is not a political issue . . . We must provide consumers with a full explanation they can understand."



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