At press time, USDA had just given Japan the results of its investigation into the veal shipment that re-shuttered the Japanese market to U.S. beef on Jan. 20. Two days later, Japanese officials called the 475-page report “insufficient.”

A Feb. 21 article in Japan Today quoted Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi as telling reporters that it's “quite difficult” for Japan to immediately lift its import ban on U.S. beef because, “There is a gap between Japan and the U.S. over the understanding of food safety.”

At another press conference, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said: “The beef import ban will be lifted again only after the U.S. implements measures to prevent American firms from exporting banned materials and reassures Japanese consumers about the safety of the beef they sell.”

When will Japan again accept U.S. beef? Meat and Livestock Australia is so convinced it won't happen until at least July that it re-issued its 2006 export expectations for the Aussie beef industry, upping them by 1%.

Two reports in one

The U.S.-Japan agreement that reopened the Japan market on Dec. 12, 2005, specified only boneless product from cattle 20 months of age or younger is eligible. What's more, any materials traditionally considered as specified-risk materials (SRMs) are to be removed.

USDA's report to the Japanese consisted of two independent probes into the incident involving illegal products from Atlantic Veal and Lamb (AVL) of Brooklyn, NY. One was by USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the other by the Office of Inspector General. Read the report at www.fsis.usda.gov.

The report says mistakes were made by two plants and USDA inspection personnel. The mistakes resulted from a “lack of understanding” on products eligible for export. The ineligible products included veal with vertebral column intact and veal offal.

In addition, the report concludes FSIS inspection personnel weren't up to snuff on USDA's Export Verification program and shouldn't have certified the shipment.

USDA again emphasized the situation was not a food-safety issue, an often-cited contention that makes the Japanese bristle. USDA Secretary Mike Johanns also told reporters the AVL shipment was the only U.S. shipment of veal to Japan. There were two U.S. plants certified to ship veal — AVL and its supplier, Ohio-based Golden Veal Corp.

The exported product contained backbone (which, according to international guidelines, is considered SRM only in animals older than 30 months of age) and offal product, which is eligible. Johanns says the amount of offal included, however, was more than what the 21 animals harvested after export certification could produce.

He said both the plant personnel and the USDA inspector should have known the products were illegal.

“This wasn't a situation where someone was trying to get something through by not labeling it,” Johanns says.

Johanns says all USDA inspectors will undergo additional mandatory training. And, plants will maintain a list of products they're certified to ship to any country, instead of a blanket export certification.

Also, USDA inspectors in the plants will be notified of changes to a plant's eligibility to export at three separate times in the certification process: when the plant applies for certification, when the plant is audited, and when a plant is certified or de-listed. In addition, exports will require a second signature from a USDA inspector before being shipped.

Stay tuned. This could last a while.