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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:33 03/09/2007
Commentary (April 7, 2005)

Beef: A Growing Thorn in US-Japanese Relations

Kae NOMURA  (Waseda University, GLOCOM Platform)

Who would have thought that beef, a popular and a regular visitor to the dinner table would become a major issue in U.S-Japanese relations? Only a few years ago, the U.S. beef trade with Japan was booming; yielding over $1 billion annually, making Japan the most lucrative export market of US beef. This, however, came crashing down in late 2003 with the discovery of a dairy cow in Washington State that was infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as Mad Cow Disease. Shortly thereafter, Japan placed a ban on all U.S. beef imports. This ban, which has been in place for about 15 months, quickly escalated from an issue of food safety to a serious glitch in U.S.-Japanese relations. It now currently stands as a major concern regarding US-Japan ties, and continues to put strain on the relationship. Why has such a problem escalated to such proportions and what should be done?

It is understandable and wise that the Japanese government was so quick in placing a ban on U.S. beef imports. With the nation already skeptical and fearful from recent discoveries of BSE in Japan, the quick decisions of the government brought about a momentary sigh of relief from much of the public. The opposite was true for many restaurants owners, however. Many restaurants, such as the popular chain store Yoshinoya and various yakiniku stores, relied on cheaper U.S. beef. Having already experienced a drastic decline in sales from domestic BSE discoveries, the ban came at a time when prospects were finally beginning to look up. Much to their dismay, rather than a quick settlement of U.S. beef imports, the ban has been in place for 15 months and counting.

In October of 2004, the US and Japan came to a tentative agreement to resume imports of US beef from cattle 20 months of age and younger. Upon this agreement, the US felt that its beef trade with Japan would soon resume. This, however, was not to be. Despite the evidence that the US has presented, Japan still did not see fit to import US beef. Certainly, the Japanese government cannot be entirely put to blame for the slow speed at which the beef issue has been progressing because it is in a difficult position; it is obligated to protect its people while trying to maintain its relationship with the US, both of which are important. A government official said, "We can't force this issue. It would look like we are compromising the people's health in deference to the US-Japanese relationship." Furthermore, it is principally up to an independent food safety commission, separate from the government, to determine if the US meets Japan's safety standards. One cannot understate the gravity of the situation by saying that the issue could have been resolved quickly, but the slowness at which it has been progressing could perhaps be avoided if some key points were recognized.

Safety, for instance, is certainly of paramount importance, but there is a limit to the extent of how thoroughly it can be conducted. It especially becomes difficult and costly where livestock are concerned. Furthermore, in the particular case of BSE, there is no cure and the incubation can be months or even years, and even the fact that it does not spread from cattle to cattle does nothing to simplify the matter. Demanding stringent guidelines to ensure the safety of its beef is certainly within reason, but Japan must clearly establish what it wants and a timetable for the U.S. in order to efficiently come to a mutual agreement. There are several possible choices to make, all of which have inherent difficulties and problems, but a clear course of action should be taken and pursued.

One safety precaution that Japan has asked of the US is that all slaughtered cattle be tested for BSE, just as in Japan. However, carrying out an identical testing procedure is not realistic in the U.S. due to the sheer size of the industry and the economic implications. Demanding such extreme testing would also set a precedent that may inadvertently spread to other industries, such as the poultry industry. With the recent outbreak of the avian flu, this is not unrealistic. There is the valid argument that such testing would improve the safety of food, but it is not possible to be carried out efficiently. Not only would it require too much manpower, but it would also cost a considerable amount of time and money. Furthermore, there have been serious doubts regarding the scientific validity of Japan's practice of testing 100% of the nation's slaughtered cattle. Some criticize that this decision was founded more in the attempt to avoid public panic rather than sound scientific reasoning. Furthermore, scientific evidence has indicated that BSE cannot be found in the muscles or fat of cattle, parts that are most commonly eaten, meaning that if those at-risk regions are avoided altogether, there is a high probability that the beef is safe for consumption. Still further, with the only method of transfer being through ruminant-derived feed, one could argue that by carefully monitoring cattle feed (which is in fact being done), testing of all slaughtered cattle is unnecessary.

Japan has also suggested that the U.S., if unable to test all of its cattle, at least test cattle exported to Japan. This, too, has negative ramifications because it makes the safety guidelines blurred and imprecise. Rather than be specific to each market, the exporting nation should practice a universal method to ensure equal safety to all of its importing nations. Just as implementing a 100% testing standard could set a precedent that would spread to other industries, a market-specific testing method may do the same. While market-specific testing may work on a small scale, it would be difficult and inefficient on a much larger scale.

What, then, should be done to bring this conflict of interest to a peaceful end? The answer lies in better mutual understanding. The US is confident that its beef supply is safe and ready for exportation, but Japan is not ready to even resume partial importation. Clearly, there is a clash of interest here, and a resolution can only be met through clear, reciprocated comprehension of the demands and their implications. Several meetings between the two nations have already taken place, but they should draw up a timeline and realistic goals;realistic goals being procedures that will optimize the safety of the beef supply while maintaining practicality. In this way, neither side will be unintentionally misled and a resolution to the conflict will be foreseeable. It is highly likely that neither side will be completely pleased with the end results, but such is the case with political conflicts, which is largely what this beef issue has become. Of course, this is far from an easy solution, but it is the most sensible solution that will result in mutual satisfaction. In the short run, it will mean economic revival of the US-Japanese beef trade, but more importantly, it reassures the bilateral ties between the US and Japan in the long run.

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