U.S. Ag Secretary Mike Johanns may press Japan to drop the age limit on imports of U.S. beef, hardening the call to raise the limit to 30 months from the current 20 months, according to The Japan Times Online. Johanns' remarks underscore what appears to be a strategy of urging Japan to adopt U.S. standards for safeguarding against BSE. U.S. standards require removal of brains, spinals cords, bones and other specified risk materials (SRMs) from cattle aged 30 months or older to safeguard against BSE.

Washington has agreed on stricter requirements for beef exports to Japan, limiting shipments to meat from cattle aged up to 20 months and removing risk materials. Under those conditions, Japan agreed in July to lift the ban on imports of U.S. beef.

"The 30-month limit is not the international standard," Johanns says, stressing that the issue now is about mitigating risks by removing materials at risk for mad cow disease.

USDA called for abolition of the 30-month standard in a recent general meeting of the World Organization for Animal Health which basically agreed on the risk-based approach but maintained the age limit.

The risk-based approach is a particular point of controversy between Japan and the U.S. because a failure by a New York exporter to remove risk material in violation of the agreed safeguard requirements led Tokyo to reinstate the import ban in January. Part of a spinal cord was found in veal that arrived in Japan only a month after the original two-year-old import ban was lifted in December.

The ban had originally been imposed after the first U.S. case of BSE was confirmed in December 2003. While Japan agreed in late July to resume imports after inspecting U.S. meatpackers, Japanese consumers still have safety concerns and major supermarket chains have yet to put U.S. beef products back on their shelves, says the Japan Times Online article.

Another major source of concern is that BSE testing is not required for U.S. beef. USDA is continuing to turn down requests by some U.S. producers to voluntarily conduct blanket testing on cattle for beef exports to Japan to satisfy Japanese consumers. Japan continues to carry out blanket BSE testing on all slaughtered cattle although the government has decided to exempt cattle aged up to 20 months from BSE testing to pave the way for imports of U.S. beef.
-- Clint Peck