At press time, it appeared U.S. beef products would return to Japan just a week or so shy of the ban's two-year anniversary.

On Dec. 12, 2005, Japan announced all systems go for resumption of North American beef imports that meet requirements agreed to by the countries more than a year before. The agreement restricts these imports to beef and selected products of animals verified to be 20 months of age and younger.

The Japanese government's decision came on the heels of a final report by a Japan Food Safety Commission issued late the previous week. The government-appointed panel ruled that differences in BSE risk between North American and Japanese beef would be “very small” if the import conditions were observed.

The morning of Dec. 12, U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF) president and CEO Phil Seng told reporters the first shipment of U.S. beef would arrive in Tokyo's Narita Airport on Dec. 17. That announcement was upstaged just a few hours later when Harris Ranch Beef announced that a final surveillance audit completed that day by USDA had cleared the way for the Selma, CA-based processor to export beef product to Japan, with the first shipment heading out just two days later.

A slow process

Japan becomes the 67th country to reopen to at least limited trade in U.S. beef, out of 119 export destinations prior to the discovery of BSE in the U.S., says U.S. Trade Representative Robert Portman. But Japan is a very important cog.

Gregg Doud, National Cattlemen's Beef Association economist, says foreign market trade for U.S. beef was worth about $15/cwt. to the fed market before the 2003 closure. Without Japan, the U.S. had recovered about a third of that, or $5/cwt. The Japanese market represented half of the remaining $10, he says. Other important market targets yet to open but on the cusp include Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong.

In a flurry of Dec. 12 morning press conferences, speakers expressed their eagerness to win back the market-share levels seen prior to discovery of BSE in the U.S. For the U.S., Japan represented its top export market in 2003, at $1.4 billion in sales. For Canada, Japan was its third-largest beef-export destination, with more than $81 million worth of beef going to Japan in 2002.

But regaining market share that has gone primarily to Australia and New Zealand will take some time, everyone agrees. For one thing, the Japan market is opening with product limitations that didn't exist before the ban.

For another, it will take some time to build age-verified supplies in the U.S. USDA says 30-35% of the U.S. cattle supply currently would fit the age-verified requirement. USMEF, however, says indications from its members would put that percentage at more like 10-15%.

Other BSE news

In other big news of that Dec. 12 weekend, USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service announced its intention to amend regulations to re-establish, under certain conditions, the importation of whole cuts of boneless beef from Japan. Such beef had been off limits to the U.S. ever since BSE was first discovered in Japan in the fall of 2001.

Interestingly, and in keeping with all the weird coincidental twists this BSE trade saga has taken the past two years, Japan Today reported the same weekend the government's verification that a Hokkaido Prefecture cow that had died the week before was Japan's 21st case of BSE.