Japan Redux
Deborah Silver
editor, ProvisionerOnline
JIt seems inevitable that I would be writing about Japan once again, only a month after my last Insight column, which also discussed U.S. beef imports to Japan — or lack thereof.
Only this time the news is good. Not the best news, but close to it. As of this writing, Japan has agreed to lift the ban on U.S. beef, pending the OK from Japanese inspectors who are currently scrutinizing 35 U.S. meat-processing plants that are certified to ship beef to Japan. Assuming those inspections proceed without a hitch, all signs point toward a summer resumption of U.S. beef trade to Japan, as early as late July.
Of course, as with any political situation — and, yes, although this is about getting U.S. beef to Japan, it’s also about politics — everyone seems to be jockeying for position. After the official announcement was made, Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., introduced legislation that would impose tariffs on Japanese exports if Japan fails to reopen its domestic market to U.S. beef by Aug. 31. Others jumped on the sanctions bandwagon, including Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., who sits on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture and Rural Development. Roberts said the purpose of the proposal was to “really keep their feet to the fire.” Japanese agriculture minister Shoichi Nakagawa called it “nonsense.”
Some in the industry have taken issue with Japan having the final say on U.S. processing plants. Philip Seng, president of the U.S. Meat Export Federation, said in a statement that Japan should respect the USDA’s judgment. “It is critically important for Japan to recognize the U.S. food-safety system and accept imports from all U.S. beef facilities approved by the USDA,” he said.
On the Japanese side, the situation became even more heated — and fast. Nearly 100 demonstrators and leaders of Japan’s opposition parties gathered in Tokyo to oppose the planned lifting of the ban, claiming the decision is no more than a political compromise on the part of the Japanese government. Social Democratic Party leader Mizuho Fukushima called the end of the import ban Japan’s “gift” to the U.S. government. “I feel anger because [the Japanese government] makes light of people’s lives,” she said.
Critics in Japan claim the decision to lift the import ban was a rush to get the job done prior to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to Washington in late June.
Be that as it may, Japan made the right decision when it chose to lift the ban. Certainly during the latest negotiations, the United States proved it has done its due diligence, inspecting the processing plants licensed to export beef to Japan, ensuring the inspectors have been fully trained and more.
For its part, Japan has come up with reasonable compromises, agreeing that if any future shipments are found to contain parts at risk for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, it will punish the shipper, not the entire U.S. beef industry. And both sides have agreed that, if a violation is found, “an appropriate measure will be taken accordingly to the nature of the violation.” These are all positive signs, indicators that the two countries have entered this agreement in the spirit of cooperation.
Perhaps the best attitude to take is the one adopted by some major beef processors in this country that lost a sizeable chunk of business when Japan closed its borders.
Spokesman Gary Mickelson for Tyson Foods Inc., whose nine beef plants await approval from the Japanese inspectors, said “We look forward to doing business in Japan again and are hopeful it will boost efforts to open the Korean market.” Calling the announcement “a positive event,” Sean McHugh, spokesman for Swift & Co., whose four beef-processing plants are on Japan’s inspection roster, said, “We look forward to providing our former customers in Japan with safe, high-quality American beef.”
So they should. And so should Japan look forward to enjoying U.S. beef products again.  Thankfully it looks like that’s about to happen — and it’s time.