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Home > Media Reviews > News Review Last Updated: 14:54 03/09/2007
News Review #353: June 29, 2006

Japan's Caution Riles Ranchers

Reviewed by Hitoshi URABE

Japan's Caution Riles Ranchers
(David Ivanovich) Houston Chronicle


Despite the title of the article may seem to imply the villain being the Japanese, the tone of the report is very objective. In fact, while casually suggesting Japan may have been overcautious and showing sympathy toward the beef producers, the article points out the inconsistencies on the policies of the U.S. side to be more responsible in delaying the reopening of U.S. beef import to Japan.

In December 2003, upon a case of BSE discovered in the U.S., Japan halted import of U.S. beef, which until then amounted to one-third of total beef consumption in Japan. While the incident was being analyzed in both Japan and the U.S., BSE was found in a cow raised in Japan, totally independent of the U.S. case. The Japanese government, in order to calm the confusion and fear of the people, quickly implemented a system to test every slaughtered cow in order to confirm it uninfected. The measure was at the time criticized to be too cautious, but it did calm down the social anxieties, and the people began to eat domestic beef again, knowing it is safe.

This, however, made the restart of the U.S. beef import difficult. It was natural for the Japanese people to expect the same level of safety standards for the foods to be imported - as would people of any civilized country. But for the U.S., implementing a system to test every cow was simply inconsiderable. Rather, the U.S. utilized the usual tactic of employing members of the congress to speak up angrily, in order to "pry open" the Japanese market again. As with similar tactics often adopted by the U.S., based upon threat and force, it only had the detrimental effect on the Japanese people as the details of the negotiations were disclosed.

As reported in the article, at least one U.S. beef processor, Creekstone, was willing to accept the procedure in accordance with the Japanese standard, to test every cow. The company's CEO explained its position that he does not believe 100 percent testing is necessary from a food safety standpoint. "But that's not the issue," he said. "Our Japanese customers are skittish on this issue. And if they want it, why wouldn't we go ahead and do that? If it makes them feel better, why not?"

A very legitimate response to a request from a large - and perhaps pampered - customer, wouldn't you say? But the U.S. government prohibited Creekstone to adopt the proposed testing procedures, for whatever authority the government had, and kept on pressuring Japan to accept its own method to sustain safety of beef. It is explained in the article that indeed Creekstone in March sued the Agriculture Department in federal court, arguing the government's response was "irrational" and "capricious."

Japan is apparently ready to re-re-open its market for U.S. beef with enhanced, more stringent, conditions. But Japan is a consumer led market, and consumers always have a right not to buy. When the U.S. beef was banned, there were many who wished for its quick return. But during the while the U.S. was attempting to "pry open" Japan's market, people became used to eating beef from other sources, including Australia and China. They learned how unreliable the U.S. safety standards were and how clumsily they were being executed - in terms of Japan's commonly accepted criteria. Also, the people became aware of the arrogant approach by the U.S. in "pry-opening" Japan's market again, which amplified the consumers' skepticism. As such, it is interesting to see how much of the market share the U.S. beef would regain once the U.S. beef were to be allowed into Japan again.

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