A shipment of more than four tons of chilled beef, processed in the U.S. state of California, arrived Friday at Tokyo's Narita International Airport, only four days after Japan agreed to a conditional resumption of U.S. beef imports.
Japan had closed its borders to U.S. beef amid concerns about mad cow disease, after a single animal brought to the United States from Canada was diagnosed with brain-wasting bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, the clinical name for the disease.
Under a bilateral agreement that took nearly two years to formulate, Japan is allowing imports of beef only from cows younger than 21 months. The meat must be free of brains, spinal cords and other body parts suspected of transmitting BSE to humans.
Before the ban, Japan was the biggest export market for U.S. beef, buying $1.4 billion worth in 2003. However, a recent survey found that 75 percent of Japanese now say they are unwilling to eat American beef because of mad cow concerns. During the ban, Australia has overtaken the United States as the biggest beef exporter to Japan.
Philip Seng, president of the U.S. Meat Export Federation, acknowledges that regaining previous market share will not be easy. "It's really a difficult issue because, do you want something safe or not safe? That's really not the question, but that's the way it's been formed in Japan. And, of course, it would appear that we have a tremendous hill to climb, as far as trying to gain the confidence back of the Japanese consumer."
Mr. Seng says he will personally escort a second, smaller beef shipment into Japan on Sunday. Like Friday's air-freighted meat, it will not be put on sale, but is for private or promotional consumption.
American beef is still banned in South Korea. But that country's livestock quarantine panel on Wednesday announced it had concluded that beef from the United States and Canada is safe. Media reports say South Korea will resume imports of North American beef after the new year begins, limited to meat from cows under 31 months of age, a more lenient limit than Japan's.
Mr. Seng says he hopes that turns out to be the case. "The Koreans have made it very clear that they would like to watch what happens in the Japanese negotiations," he says. "We see this as a catalyst, now that Japan has made the decision to go forward. Although, we really wouldn't want any other country to emulate the conditions that Japan has imposed on our industry."
More than 60 countries banned U.S. beef after the mad cow case in Washington State. That caused beef exports to drop from more than one billion kilograms in 2003 to less than 200 million kilograms in 2004.