The race for the White House is in the short rows now, and the two campaigns are spinning economic data to gain an edge. Here are the facts:
*The U.S. economy grew at an annual rate of 3.7 percent in the third quarter. That's a little better than it did last spring, but was not quite as strong as some analysts expected. *Orders to U.S. factories for big-ticket durable goods edged up slightly in September. *But continuing job worries drove consumer confidence lower in October for the third consecutive month.
Consumer confidence also is lacking right now in Japan, especially as it relates to U.S. beef. Negotiators from the States have spent months trying to re-open the Japanese market, which was closed to U.S. beef after the discovery of a single case of Mad Cow disease In Washington State last winter. This week, the first hopeful signs of a deal emerged ... but with plenty of strings attached.
While no date has been established for the resumption of trade, Japan has agreed to what it calls a "framework" for imports of U.S. cattle 21 months of age or younger. Those younger cattle account for about 70 percent of the 35 million head slaughtered here annually.
Under the terms of the tentative agreement, USDA will create a new marketing initiative called the Beef Export Verification Program. It will be charged with certifying that all beef exports to Japan are from cattle 21 months of age or younger. The plan also calls for an evaluation of USDA's performance to be conducted by experts from the World Health Organization in July of 2005.
Following the discovery of America's only confirmed case of BSE last December, Japan immediately banned all imports of U.S. beef. The Japanese market was estimated at $1.4 billion prior to the ban. Australia stepped in to the void, and seized the lucrative market. Now, with the Australians holding record numbers of cattle in feedlots down under, the U.S. isn't likely to recover the Japanese market quickly.
Other data support the notion that recovering the market won't be easy. A survey conducted by a major Japanese newspaper this week revealed that 63 percent of those polled say they won't eat U.S. beef -- despite the fact that confirmed BSE cases in Japan outnumber U.S. cases by 15-to-1.