The first shipment of U.S. beef to Japan in nearly two years arrived today in that once lucrative Asian market. You'll recall the Japanese imposed an import ban on American beef in December 2003 after the first confirmed case of mad cow disease in the U.S.
Today's shipment of 4.6 tons of meat included strip sirloin and chuck eye cuts, as well as beef tongue. Japanese inspectors will check the shipment to see if it meets safety guidelines established by the Tokyo government.
The re-opening of the Japanese market has the U.S. beef industry breathing a sigh of relief. Now the next big battle is getting reluctant Japanese consumers to buy in.
Japan lifted its import ban on U.S. beef this week, but its consumers may need more time to get over their mad cow worries. Representatives from Japanese supermarket chains admit they are wary of stocking their shelves with American beef until they are sure consumers will buy it. A recent Japanese poll showed nearly 70 percent of respondents were against resuming U.S. beef imports.
Before the ban, American beef was extremely popular in Japan, making the country the most lucrative market for U.S. producers. But when the ban was implemented, Japanese supermarkets and restaurants established ties with other suppliers, such as Australia, and consumers have grown accustomed to the taste of their beef. In addition, grocers in Japan are concerned that the restriction to younger cows will mean the supply of American beef will be short and they will have to raise prices. Tokyo opened the doors Tuesday to meat from U.S. cows aged 20 months or less.
Many involved in America's beef industry also remain cautious. Tyson Foods, the nation's largest meat processor, admits the reopening of the Japanese market to U.S. beef is encouraging, but it doesn't expect to see a significant export business to Asia until the second half of 2006. Representatives from the U.S. Meat Export Federation say it will take at least three years to regain market share. The U.S. exported more than 207 million pounds of beef to Japan before the border was closed. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association reports the two-year ban has cost the U.S. beef industry over $3 billion.
In addition, South Korea is set to reopen its market to U.S. beef, but officials expect it to be mid-year before shipments will be sent to America's second largest Asian market.