This week, it was announced that Japan had agreed to discontinue inspections of entire meat shipments from the U.S. Both sides also agreed to speed up and facilitate Japan's inspection of U.S. plants to make implementation follow more quickly.

As President Bush and Japan's Prime Minister Abe prepare to meet at Camp David this weekend, signals abound that the Japanese are prepared to be more reasonable and implement a more science-based approach in the U.S. beef trade.

The implication is Japan will move to make its policies consistent with OIE guidelines. The expectation that the U.S. will receive a "controlled risk" for BSE designation next month from the OIE should help to facilitate this move.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF), USDA and other groups have all released official statements praising Japan's recent posturing toward trade normalization. The USMEF even predicted it could result in a doubling of trade to Japan.

Such statements are politically adept and heartfelt, and it's great news that Japan and Korea appear to be earnest in reopening their markets to U.S. beef, the world's highest in quality and safety.

But as the U.S. beef industry continues to progress toward a normalized world beef-trade situation, it must take a step back and ask itself what can be done to prevent this type of market disruption in the future.

Virtually everyone in the beef business can look back at the BSE situation and agree on at least two irrefutable points. The first is that trade is essential to the future growth and prosperity of our industry, and will be a key component in our efforts to keep the industry sustainable and profitable.

The second is that the system is broken and in desperate need of repair. It never should have taken four years (assuming we're back to normal by December 2007) to normalize trade. What good are trade agreements, international standards, science-based guidelines and the like if their implementation can be held up for four years with little or no consequence?

Some out there would claim the U.S. isn't blameless in this. After all, Canada has made a similar argument relative to its treatment at the hands of its U.S. trading partner. While history may show the U.S. was more responsive and science-based than many other countries, the inescapable truth is the U.S. is largely guilty of the very same treatment we're so angry about.

If we allow a small but vocal minority of activist groups aligned against the beef industry to short-circuit our ability to live up to our trade agreements, while behaving in a scientifically responsible manner, how can we expect anything better from our customers? Science should not be up to debate. Moreover, it's relatively easy to agree on the science on these matters, and while it's always possible to find someone willing to refute an overwhelming body of evidence, such a tactic should not be allowed to gum up the works of world trade.

No doubt, a situation like BSE will always lead to trade disruption, but steps must be taken to ensure it doesn't take four years to resolve it. Trade agreements mean nothing unless they're enforceable.

So the next time, and there will be a next time, let's hope the U.S. beef industry isn't celebrating the making of slow progress years after trade should have resumed.
-- Troy Marshall