Japan Eases Limits on U.S. Beef Imports

Via The Wall Street Journal

By Curt Thacker and Bill Tomson

Japan has agreed to let more U.S. beef into the country for sale in a further easing of restrictions that stemmed from the first U.S. case of mad-cow disease a decade ago.

U.S. officials confirmed Monday that Japan will now allow imports of beef from cattle less than 30 months of age, compared with the current limit of 20 months. U.S. trade officials said the change is expected to boost the export of U.S. beef to Japan by "hundreds of millions of dollars" in the coming years. Japan is an important market for high-end beef cuts.

The deal takes effect Friday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said. Canada also reached a deal Monday to expand its beef exports to Japan.

"This move is an important step forward in paving the way toward greater export opportunities to one of our largest export markets," said J.D. Alexander, president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, a U.S. group representing ranchers and beef companies.

U.S. beef exports to Japan have been climbing steadily in recent years, but they are not back to the level they were in 2003, before the first case of mad-cow disease was discovered in the U.S. The U.S. exported about $849 million worth of beef in the first 11 months of 2012, according to USDA data. That figure is up from $704 million in the same time period in 2011. The U.S. exported $1.4 billion of beef to Japan in 2003.

Japan banned all U.S. beef in December 2003 and then restarted imports in 2006, but restricted those imports to product from cattle under 20 months of age out of concern that older cattle are more likely to be infected with mad-cow disease.

Japan's decision follows years of debate. A report published in September last year by a Japanese government advisory panel concluded that raising the upper age limit on animals whose beef can be accepted for importation to 30 months from 20 months "posed little risk and its impact on human health would be negligible."

Mad-cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is a fatal degenerative disease affecting the central nervous system of cattle. People can acquire the human equivalent of by eating tainted cattle parts.

Monday's announcement comes a little more than a month before the next round of Trans-Pacific Partnership talks. The U.S. is negotiating that potential free-trade zone with Canada and several Asian nations, among others, but Japan has stayed on the sidelines due in part to agricultural concerns.

Ainsley Shea