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Japan Lifts Ban on U.S. Beef

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Japan Lifts Ban on U.S. Beef

Business

Japan Lifts Ban on U.S. Beef

Japan Lifts Ban on U.S. Beef

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Japan announces it will end its two-year-old moratorium on imports of beef from the United States. But suppliers who want to sell beef to Japan will have to set up systems to track cattle to prove the meat comes from cows that are less than 30 months old.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Japan has lifted its ban on US beef, and other Asian nations are expected to follow. The ban was put in place in 2003 after the discovery of mad cow disease in one US steer. Japan was a big market for American beef producers, worth more than $1 billion. Now those producers will begin exporting again, if they can meet some pretty strict Japanese requirements. NPR's Ted Robbins has the story.

TED ROBBINS reporting:

Dave Stevenson drives his big, white pickup truck between corrals filled with 25,000 head of cattle feeding quietly on flaked corn and hay. Stevenson is co-owner of the Red Rock Feeding Company, a feedlot located between Phoenix and Tucson.

Mr. DAVE STEVENSON (Co-owner, Red Rock Feeding Company): Let's go look at some nice cattle on the outside alley.

ROBBINS: Stevenson is glad to see Japan once again allow US beef imports, but he's not counting on selling huge numbers, at least not right away; that's because the Japanese have put two major restrictions on US beef. First, cattle has to be slaughtered at 20 months or younger. Second, the cattle must carry a record of where it's from.

Mr. STEVENSON: See the little metal clip in his left ear and left ear? That tells you where they came from. It doesn't tell you their age, though. These cattle, looking at them, are about 17, 18 months, maybe 19. They're getting up there to where they're borderline.

ROBBINS: Both requirements, age and source verification, are to prevent the spread of mad cow disease. Source verification allows instant tracking of any infected beef. Age verification is insurance; the incidence of mad cow goes up as beef ages. Lynn Heinze of the US Meat Export Federation says the source verification was expected.

Mr. LYNN HEINZE (US Meat Export Federation): We're the only major exporter of animal products in the world that, at this point, do not have some sort of a uniform national ID program. Many people are working to get that done now.

ROBBINS: As for the 20-month age requirement, most cattle are slaughtered between 16 and 24 months of age anyway. Harvey Dietrich, who owned a slaughterhouse for 17 years before becoming a full-time rancher, says 20 months is unnecessarily cautious.

Mr. HARVEY DIETRICH (Rancher): But Japanese determined that 20 months is what they're willing to do. If we want to sell them beef, we sort of got blackmailed into that one, I think. We did a terrible job of trading.

ROBBINS: US beef producers will now have to do a better job of selling. Lynn Heinze says the US Meat Export Federation has identified more cuts of beef to sell to Japan. And he says that cuts Americans don't each much should make money.

Mr. HEINZE: Tongue, which is very popular in Japan and sells for less than a dollar a pound here, is selling for about $20 a pound in Japan right now.

ROBBINS: Most of Japan's imported beef during the US ban came from Australia. Now Australia will once again become America's biggest competitor. Rancher Harvey Dietrich.

Mr. DIETRICH: The Australians aren't going to roll over. They've been sending all the beef in. So I see it--a long-term situation where we'll build the numbers.

ROBBINS: Dietrich says all 7,500 of his cattle have what they need for Asian export.

Mr. DIETRICH: Why, every calf that's born on my place has a tag. They're all sequentially numbered. And we punch the birth date on them. Our cattle would qualify for Japanese...

ROBBINS: It should be a worthwhile investment. Beef economists say the added technology and paperwork costs between a dollar and $4 a head of cattle, but they say the Japanese will pay from 25 to as much as $80 a head more than beef sells for here. Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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