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Home > Media Reviews > News Review Last Updated: 14:53 03/09/2007
News Review #205: April 7, 2004

Japan Says No End to Beef Ban Before May

Reviewed by Hitoshi URABE

"Japan Says No End to Beef Ban Before May"

Related Article:
"Japan shouldn't have a cow over safety of U.S. beef"
The Seattle Times


Office International des Epizooties (OIE), or World Organization for Animal Health, is normally a quiet and unspectacular institution composed of scholars, veterinarians, and bureaucrats specialized in this field. OIE is an intergovernmental organization, established in 1924, that aims to inform governments about the occurrence, spread, and control of animal diseases worldwide. It also works to harmonize the regulations for trade in animals and animal products among its 165 member countries, at last count. It is perhaps the first time the name of the organization hit the front pages of Japan's newspapers.

Japan banned import of US beef when, in December last year, a mad-cow disease was found in the state of Washington. It effectively chopped a third of Japan's beef consumption, forcing the retailers and consumers either to forgo, or to find some alternative to, US beef. About 50 countries, along with Japan, stopped importing US beef, and although some have relaxed their restrictions since, to allow US beef under varying degrees of stiffened regulations, many still shut their doors. But since Japan had been the largest importer of US beef next only to Mexico, it has been the target of accusations most often, of "wrong doing", by arrogant, inflammatory, and thus unproductive articles and commentaries - in a way typical of American media. The "related article" introduced above is an example of such reports, not a worth reading at all except to experience the bad taste.

The fact is, everyone involved, from government officials of both countries to US producers and Japanese consumers sincerely wish for resumption of import of US beef into Japan. However, recent developments show the issue is heading the wrong direction.

Gathering from the reports published, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman sent a letter confidentially to Japan's Agriculture Minister Yoshiyuki Kamei, suggesting a settlement through OIE. Then someone in a high position within the web of bureaucracy mishandled it, though some rumor it was intentional. What happened was that the Vice Agriculture Minister Mamoru Ishihara, at a news conference last week, disclosed the contents of the letter, and went on to express his Ministry's intention to reject the proposal by Ms Veneman, apparently before any official message was conveyed to her. It was natural for the US side to become furious with such handling by Japanese officials, and they are now threatening to take the matter to WTO.

The unconfirmed story goes on to reveal that there was a sense of rivalry, if not jealousy, between the Foreign Affairs Ministry and Agriculture Ministry, the former in the endeavor to maintain the lead in international negotiations and the latter determined to maintain the reins on issues related to meat.

There are many in Japan who feel that the requirement to test every slaughtered cow before distributed as meat is perhaps going a little too far - not that the meat is totally safe but considering the cost involved vis-a-vis other milliards of risks that accompany everyday life. But this perhaps overcautious attitude was actually induced and fanned by the Agriculture Ministry and the Health Ministry through their poor handling of the mad-cow disease when it was discovered in Japan in 2001. At the time, the Ministries' announcements swayed from one extreme to the other, saying the beef is safe one day and announcing further possibilities of infection the next. People completely lost faith in the government, and were not satisfied until measures were implemented to test every cow, so that they could rely on facts rather than the "views" of discredited bureaucrats.

Thus, the government, especially the Agriculture Ministry, needs a good reason to either, regain the trust of the people, or, show that some method other than testing very cow is similarly effective, before altering the current procedures.

As such, it seems the issue is still going to take a long time to resolve, repeating that old game where consumers always lose.

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications