U.S. agricultural officials who rushed to Japan after the country reimposed a total ban on American beef late last week say they hope an investigation into how prohibited spinal material was shipped to Tokyo will restore Japanese consumer confidence. The U.S. officials are also asking that the incident be put in proper context.
A team from the U.S. Department of Agriculture told Japanese officials on Tuesday that the banned material was a small portion of a shipment of veal sent by a company that had little experience with international customers and did not understand new Japanese regulations.
Agriculture Undersecretary J.B. Penn, speaking to reporters at the U.S. Embassy, says the incident should not be interpreted to mean that the American food system is unsafe.
"This is not a case of shipping a product that was unsafe," said Penn. "Rather it was a case of shipping a product that was not approved to be shipped to this market. And again we're sincerely regretful that that occurred."
Japan, in partially reopening its market to U.S. beef late last year, limited imports to meat from cattle under 20 months of age. Shipments were not to contain spinal cords, brains or other cow parts suspected of spreading to humans a variant of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease.
The U.S. regulators are obviously disappointed that the market is again closed. It was worth $1.4 billion annually before Japan banned U.S. beef in late 2003 after a single dairy cow in Washington State was found with B.S.E.
Deputy agriculture secretary, Chuck Lambert, denies the U.S. sees the reimposition of a full ban as an overreaction.
"Given the consumer concerns, I think, it was deemed prudent on both sides that we take a breather, that we do a full examination of the process, of the system," said Lambert.
Neither Japanese nor American officials here are indicating how long that examination will take. Agriculture Undersecretary Penn says there was no discussion of a time frame for reopening the market in their talks Tuesday in Tokyo.
"It's a little premature to talk about time frames, but we do want to move as expeditiously as we possibly can," he said.
Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Tomohiko Taniguchi points out that the government here is bluntly saying that U.S. regulators and the beef export industry must ensure last week's mistake is not repeated.
"That would give a dire and grave blow to the overall trade situation in terms of beef between the United States and Japan," he said. "So this should not happen again."
The U.S. agriculture department team in various meetings in Tokyo on Tuesday repeatedly apologized. But Undersecretary Penn said Japanese reporters should do a better job of putting things into context, noting that only about 150 people are ever known to have died of the human variant of mad cow disease.
The violation of Japanese import regulations continues to receive more publicity here than the news that Japan this week confirmed its 22nd case of mad cow disease, compared to only two ever detected in the United States.
Japanese officials attribute the disparity to different testing systems. Japan tests all cattle slaughtered for food as well as all cattle more than two years old that die of other causes. The United States tests only a sample of its herd.