Japan Slaps New Ban on U.S. Beef Shipments

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Japan reinstates a ban on beef imported from the United States after a shipment from New York arrives with backbones. The Japanese prohibit beef parts connected to the central nervous system, citing fears of mad cow disease.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm John Ydstie. Coming up, the color of Pluto, but first, this week the Japanese government again suspended shipments of U.S. beef over fears of mad cow disease. Japanese meat inspectors caught a shipment of American beef that still had backbones in it, which is a violation of a trade agreement between the two countries. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is scrambling to reassure the Japanese by stepping up inspections.

NPR's Chris Arnold reports.

CHRIS ARNOLD reporting:

A few years ago, U.S. ranchers were selling more than a billion dollars worth of beef annually to Japan. But then in December of 2003, there was a case of mad cow disease in the U.S., and Japan and many other countries banned U.S. beef imports. Most countries have since reestablished trade, but in Japan's case, it's been much harder for U.S. officials to wedge open the door to let American beef back in.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns:

Mr. MIKE JOHANNS (Secretary, U.S. Department of Agriculture): Japan had a ban on U.S. beef for about two years, and it's only been within about the last 30 to 60 days that we were able to reopen that market. The very specific requirements with Japan are different than any other market, any other export market.

ARNOLD: Secretary Johanns says that may be why one company made a mistake. Atlantic Veal and Lamb, based in Brooklyn, New York, shipped 900 pounds of veal to Japan, and three out of 41 boxes of it contained meat with the backbones still attached. Japan and the U.S. had agreed that no backbones would be shipped due to Japan's concern that mad cow disease could be transmitted through that tissue. But the company did it, and a USDA inspector signed off the shipment.

Mr. J. PATRICK BOYLE (President and CEO, American Meat Institute): We are confident that this product is safe, but we acknowledge that it should not have been shipped under the terms of our agreement with Japan.

ARNOLD: That's J. Patrick Boyle, the head of the American Meat Institute, which represents the meat packing industry. He held a conference call with reporters where he took repeated pains to stress that the meat was safe to eat. He said that there has only been one documented case of mad cow disease in the U.S., and he said the packaging of the veal with the bones in it conforms to the guidelines set down by virtually all countries around the world.

BOYLE: Our product is perfectly safe. We've consumed about 60 billion pounds of U.S. beef here in the United States since we lost our market in Japan in December of 2003, and we've consumed that product happily and safely.

ARNOLD: U.S. ranchers and meat packers are not happy about Japan reinstating its ban. ..TEXT: Gary Webber is director of regulatory affairs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

Mr. GARY WEBBER (Director of Regulatory Affairs, National Cattlemen's Beef Association): Well, we certainly don't believe that one mistake in a product like this should shut down all trade.

ARNOLD: U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns is taking steps to try to get the beef trade with Japan reopened. For one thing, he's requiring that all export shipments to any country now, get inspected twice.

Mr. JOHANNS: We're not going to put this verification in the hands of just a single USDA person. We're now going to double that up, require a second inspection. But in addition to that, we're going to have a team that goes out there, does unannounced inspections, so there will be a surprise visit.

ARNOLD: The president of the company that shipped the meat, Atlantic Veal and Lamb, said in a statement that the firm will cooperate fully with the USDA, and quote, "sincerely regrets that we shipped product not approved for export to Japan".

Chris Arnold, NPR News.

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