Vertebral column found in an 860-lb. beef shipment from Brooklyn, NY, meatpacker Atlantic Veal & Lamb, Inc., to Japan has undone the partial reopening of that market announced Dec. 12. That agreement allowed the importation of beef and selected products from animals of U.S. or Canadian origin verified as 20 months of age and younger.

The material was found during a Japanese inspection following the shipment's arrival at Narita International Airport in Tokyo on Friday. And the Japanese government quickly ended all importation of U.S. beef product into the nation. A total of 1,500 tons of U.S. beef had cleared inspections since Japan partially reopened its market to U.S. beef on Dec. 12, Japanese officials say.

Today's edition of the Kyodo News quoted Japanese farm ministry officials as saying the backbone material was found in product a Japanese trading company imported as a sample product. The three boxes containing 121 lbs. of veal with backbones arrived at the airport Friday morning, they said, and were part of a shipment of 41 boxes holding 860 lbs. of U.S. beef.

Japanese officials say imports of U.S. beef will be suspended at least until the U.S. offers Japan an explanation about the incident's cause. No decision has yet been made, however, about whether and how trade will reopen after that. Japanese imports of Canadian beef, which also resumed on Dec. 12, are not affected.

USDA Secretary Mike Johanns said that, under U.S. regulations, the vertebral column is not a specified risk material because it was in beef under 30 months.

"However, our agreement with Japan is to export beef with no vertebral column and we have failed to meet the terms of that agreement," he said.

"I can also share with you that at least the documentation that I've looked at, it appears that somebody who is experienced with that documentation would understand that the vertebral column was still attached to the meat. And the person who certified it did certify it, and for whatever reason just did not connect to the fact that the vertebral column needed to be removed before it arrived in Japan, " Johanns told reporters.

Johanns was quick to point out that the situation was not a food safety issue. Nonetheless, he added, it is "an unacceptable failure on our part to meet the requirements of our agreement with Japan."

The Kyodo News reports the U.S. government has thus far authorized 40 processing facilities to export beef products to Japan. While Atlantic Veal & Lamb was one of the authorized facilities, it hadn't yet undergone inspection by a Japanese team that visited the U.S. last month.

In a statement released this afternoon, Philip Peerless, president of Atlantic Veal and Lamb, said:

"We sincerely regret that we shipped product not approved for export to Japan. Our company shipped this product in response to an order by a Japanese customer.

"The product we shipped is safe and is widely consumed in the U.S. marketplace. Were this product shipped to San Francisco, there would be no question about its safety. But because we shipped it to Japan, and because it contained bones that are not accepted by the Japanese, we have now been prohibited from exporting to Japan.

"We are absolutely confident that the product is safe. However, we regret that there was a misinterpretation of the export requirements and an honest mistake involving a very small amount of product that has led to this degree of concern. It is important to note that Atlantic Veal produces veal derived from very young animals -- animals that have never tested positive for BSE. We estimate that the veal we shipped came from animals who were less than 4 1/2 months of age.

"We will cooperate fully with USDA to provide any information they require to ensure that our company is in fully compliance with all inspection regulations and that our export programs going forward operate in a way that is fully consistent with export requirements."