A market-recovery process that was beginning to widen its stride in late 2005 and early 2006 slowed to a shuffle Jan. 20.

That's the day Japanese inspectors at Tokyo's Narita Airport found vertebral column in a small shipment of U.S. veal from Brooklyn, NY-based Atlantic Veal and Lamb, and promptly re-imposed the two-year-old ban on U.S. beef that had ended Dec. 12. About 1,500 tons of U.S. beef product had been shipped to Japan in that 40-day window.

Beef trade with Japan had reopened under a Dec. 12 agreement allowing product from U.S. and Canadian cattle 20 months of age and younger. In addition, all traditional “specified-risk material” was to be removed. A total of about 40 U.S. firms had been certified by USDA for export to Japan.

Vertebral column, however, isn't considered at-risk material in cattle younger than 30 months, wherein lies the misunderstanding by the inspector who certified the veal for export. Food safety isn't in question, but the inclusion of backbone violated the agreement.

By mid-day Jan. 20, USDA Secretary Mike Johanns delivered his agency's plan for winning back Japanese confidence:

  • USDA will submit a report to Japan on its investigation, actions and consequences for U.S. incompliance with agreement.

  • The Brooklyn, NY, processor was de-listed for export to Japan, and no additional plants will be listed until the proper procedures are in place.

  • A second USDA Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) signature will be required on Beef Export Verification (BEV) certificates. In addition, unannounced USDA inspections will be a part of the BEV program.

  • FSIS held a conference call with district managers to reaffirm requirements on all countries with which the U.S. has a BEV program.

  • Require inspectors in BEV plants to review procedures and ensure compliance.

  • A U.S. team was sent to Japan to work with Japan's government to review all shipments currently in-country.

  • Require further training of FSIS inspectors on BEV requirements; require signed validation they've successfully completed the training.

  • Conduct a meeting of all BEV plant participants to ensure all requirements are met.

The U.S. dodged one bullet that week, however, when South Korea announced that the Japan situation wouldn't affect its decision earlier in the week to reopen its market to U.S. beef in late March. That agreement allows the importation of boneless beef 30 months of age and younger.

In addition, Taiwan and Singapore reopened their markets to U.S. exports of boneless beef from animals 30 months of age and younger.

Other BSE-related news of that hectic week included:

  • On Jan. 23, Japan announced its 22nd case of domestic BSE after tests confirmed a cow that died the previous week was infected with the fatal brain-wasting disease. The 64-month-old cow was born before Japan implemented its feed ban.

  • That same day, Canada confirmed its fourth domestic case of BSE, this one in a six-year-old crossbred cow in Alberta. The announcement led to calls by some in the U.S. for closure of the U.S. border to Canadian beef imports, but Johanns said he didn't expect any change in U.S.-Canada trade.