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Thursday, March 30, 2006

JAPAN YET TO BE SATISFIED

U.S. agrees to beef precautions


By MAYUMI NEGISHI and YUMI WIJERS-HASEGAWA
Staff writers

The United States agreed Wednesday to train workers handling beef exports to Japan and to double its final checks on beef shipments headed here, according to government officials on both sides.

But Tokyo is not completely satisfied.

At a two-day technical meeting between the two countries on U.S. beef that ended Wednesday in Tokyo, the two sides reached "a degree" of understanding, said Hirofumi Kugita, director of the farm ministry's animal health division.

"I cannot call it a major step forward, but I can say it was a step forward, rather than backward," Kugita told reporters after meeting with U.S. delegates.

In addition to the training and the checks, the U.S. also has agreed to increase communication among the different regulatory sections within the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

No target date was set for lifting the ban on U.S. beef.

Japan closed its doors to U.S. beef a second time in January after customs inspectors at Narita airport found backbone material in a U.S. veal shipment.

Japan had reopened the market to U.S. beef in December with an agreement from the U.S. that their suppliers would remove material deemed a mad cow disease risk, including spinal cords, eyes and brains, from shipments to Japan.

Tokyo's main concern has been whether the January incident was truly an isolated case as Washington claims. Japan suspects it could be a systemic problem and has asked the U.S. to show that other facilities will not make the same mistake.

"We are not yet fully convinced by the U.S. explanation that (the veal shipment) was a unique incident," said Hideshi Michino, director of the health ministry's office of import food inspection and safety division. "But the U.S. admits it needs to carry out improvement measures, and we want to study those measures."

The two parties reached some degree of understanding about why the veal incident occurred and how to prevent it from happening again, the farm ministry's Kugita said.

Washington has agreed to teach workers at U.S. meatpacking plants about what cuts of meat are eligible for shipment to Japan.

"This is another step along the path to the resumption of trade," said Chuck Lambert, undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs at the USDA.

The additional training of personnel is one point on a preliminary checklist of precautions the U.S. side promises to take starting Monday to prevent another incident like the veal shipment.

After the list has been finalized, USDA auditors will use it to inspect about 40 plants that want to send beef to Japan.

Once the auditors are confident the plants have addressed Japan's concerns, the two sides will discuss the next step to restarting shipments of U.S. beef, Lambert said.

However, no timeline has been set to reopen the market. Lambert said new issues might arise from the Japanese side, including increased concern from Japanese consumers and the possibility a Japanese delegation will inspect U.S. plants.

Hoping to increase its transparency on the negotiations, the central government plans to hold public talks with consumers to answer questions and respond to concerns about U.S. beef.

"Afterward, we will decide whether it is OK to resume beef imports under the current framework," Michino of the health ministry said.

He did not try to predict when Japan would reopen its doors to U.S. beef.

"Of course our hope is sooner better than later -- we would settle with tomorrow," Lambert said. However, he added, "We have to be realistic. We're working to move through this in a step-wise manner."



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