Two years ago this month, the U.S. beef industry was turned on its head. The discovery of the first of two confirmed cases of mad cow disease brought a halt to shipments of U.S. beef to many of the industry's most lucrative overseas markets, including Japan.
Now, after months of negotiation and stepped up efforts at testing for the disease, U.S. beef is poised to return to Japan. That nation's Food Safety Commission has given the green light for the resumption of U.S. beef imports, which now shifts the emphasis from diplomacy to marketing.
Reports are circulating that Japan likely will end its ban on U.S. beef imports as early as next week. According to the Japanese press, the country plans to lift a nearly two-year ban on U.S. and Canadian beef imports. USDA officials met this week with visiting Japanese government representatives to prepare for the resumption of U.S. beef exports to Japan.
Before it banned U.S. beef in December 2003, Japan was the largest beef export market for the United States, buying nearly $1.4 billion of the product a year. Japan banned American beef after the U.S. announced the discovery of its first case of mad cow disease. Since then, USDA has stepped up its testing of cattle for the disease.
While the end of the ban brings good news to U.S. beef producers, concerns remain Japan never will be the lucrative overseas market for U.S. beef that it was before the ban was implemented. A recent poll by Kyodo News agency indicates 75 percent of Japanese consumers would avoid eating American beef when imports are resumed. And, new Japanese regulations will not open the market to cattle older than 21 months. In the past, cattle older than 21 months have made up the majority of beef imports to Japan. Also, U.S. officials worry that so-called "snapback" tariffs may be triggered if certain levels of U.S. beef are imported. The tariffs are designed to protect domestic markets.
Australia also is concerned. For the past two years, it has been Japan's biggest beef supplier. A senior official from a group called BSE-Free Australia says higher tariffs could happen in the first quarter of Japan's 2006 fiscal year, especially if U.S. beef import volumes recover quickly.
Meanwhile, South Korea's agriculture ministry reported this week its livestock quarantine committee has postponed a decision on whether to resume importing U.S. beef until sometime next week.