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Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2006

Japan failed to fully inspect U.S. meat processing plants


Staff writer

Japan did not keep its promise to send officials to check U.S. meatpacking plants before resuming U.S. beef imports in December, farm minister Shoichi Nakagawa admitted Monday.

News photo
Farm Minister Shoichi Nakagawa speaks Monday during a Lower House Budget Committee session.

"It was not possible to check if conditions for resuming U.S. beef imports were being met until we actually resumed imports," Nakagawa said in response to questions from Democratic Party of Japan member Yoshihisa Matsuno before the House of Representatives Budget Committee session.

He also apologized and said he would "consider how to take responsibility" for deciding not to go forward with the inspections before resuming beef imports, an inaction that may have been partially to blame for a beef shipment that contained banned materials and resulting in the ban being reinstated.

Later in the day, he said, "I apologize for not informing the Diet of the change. . . . My understanding is that we have not broken any promise concerning the protection of food safety."

The Cabinet promised the Diet in November that it would send officials to check U.S. meat processing plants before opening Japan's doors to beef. But neither the agriculture nor health ministries sent officials until Dec. 13, one day after Japan resumed the beef trade.

"I understood that the U.S. would comply responsibly with the conditions set," Nakagawa said of the decision. "Further, it was clear that Japan would be allowed to check at any time after imports resumed."

Japanese officials visited 11 facilities, in California, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and Texas. But not all U.S. facilities processing Japan-bound beef are open to inspectors.

Because Japan has few qualified officials to make the inspections, the checks mostly targeted documents, an agriculture ministry official said.

Japan on Dec. 12 lifted a two-year import ban on U.S. beef that had been in place since the December 2003 discovery of mad cow disease in a cow in the U.S. But imports were halted again Jan. 20 after officials found banned spinal cords included in a U.S. shipment of veal at Narita airport.

Spinal cords from a cow with mad cow disease could contain high concentrations of disease-carrying agents. Spines, along with eyes, brains and other problematic parts, are banned under the agreement between Japan and the U.S.

The faulty shipment triggered a lot of finger-pointing.

U.S. officials have issued apologies and promised to get to the bottom of the mistaken shipment, and the DPJ is demanding the ruling Liberal Democratic Party shoulder some of the blame.

"This shows that the government put trade relations with the U.S. over the safety of the people," Matsuno said.

Unfortunately, that impression is one many people in Japan share, said Kiyotoshi Kaneko, a professor at Tokyo Medical University and a member of the independent Food Safety Commission's prion committee when it compiled the report that paved the way for the import resumption.

"It's no wonder -- both government officials and the media were reporting that Japan was going to resume (U.S. beef) imports even before we had finished discussions," Kaneko said.

The U.S. beef market in Japan was worth $1.4 billion in 2003.

Under the agreement to resume imports, the U.S. promised to make sure only beef from cattle under 21 months of age was processed for Japan's market and all high-risk parts would be removed.

Tokyo vowed to check that this was done. But critics say Japan lacks the manpower to make thorough checks.

In the U.S., up to 5,000 head of cattle can be processed per day at a facility. But Japan has only 23 qualified inspectors in its Animal Quarantine Service, while the health ministry has just a couple watching over food safety.



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