The Yomiuri Shimbun
TOKYO - A government panel Friday agreed to ease regulations controlling imports of U.S. beef by removing cows aged 20 months or younger from a blanket testing requirement for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as mad cow disease.
A subpanel of the Cabinet Office's Food Safety Commission decided that cattle up to this age could be excluded because health risks resulting from the change in testing rules would be extremely small.
The panel is expected to finalize the decision by the end of the month and submit the proposal to the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry and the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry by late April.
In a September report, the Food Safety Commission approved a review of blanket testing. But as some commission members opposed it, discussions on the matter are continuing.
Even if the proposal were formalized, imports of U.S. beef are unlikely to resume before summer. The commission has to submit a separate proposal regarding such matters as the method used to determine the age of cattle by examining their carcasses before imports of U.S. beef can be resumed.
Professor Yasuhiro Yoshikawa of Tokyo University, who headed the subpanel, said at a press conference, "I think panel members were not too divided over approving the proposal.”
The United States has become increasingly irritated over Japan's prolonged ban on imports of U.S. beef. On Wednesday, U.S. President Bush pressured Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, asking him over the phone to give a concrete timetable for resuming imports.
Following the call, some government officials directed the panel to finally reach a decision on the matter. Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Yoshinobu Shimamura said at a press conference after a Cabinet meeting Friday, "It would be appreciated if it finalized its decision as soon as possible.”
Koizumi refrained from giving a date for resuming imports during his conversation with Bush, apparently because the prime minister had to take into account consumer concern over food safety, sources said.
The government is faced with a dilemma as it wants to ensure the safety of food, but at the same time does not want to damage relations with the United States.
In October, Tokyo and Washington reached a basic agreement on resuming imports of U.S. beef from cattle aged 20 months or younger. But U.S. officials have grown frustrated pointing out that the Food Safety Commission was taking far too long to endorse the age requirement.
Japanese and U.S. officials said Bush made the call Wednesday as his aides had urged him to do so because the U.S. meat industry and members of Congress with ties to the industry had been lobbying to have Japan lift its ban on U.S. beef. But some Japanese officials are concerned that if the government were to intervene in the Food Safety Commission due to U.S. pressures it would trigger public criticism.
The commission was set up in July 2003 to make scientific judgments on food safety.
Foreign Ministry officials have expressed concern that the beef ban might hurt Japan-U.S. relations. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is scheduled to visit Japan on Friday, likely will take up the issue with Koizumi and Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura.
An important point of these meetings will be whether the government will be able to present a timetable for a resumption of U.S. beef imports that Washington finds acceptable, a ministry source said.