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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, December 25, 2004

Japan's ban on U.S. beef one year old

By Natalie Obiko Pearson
Associated Press

TOKYO — Japan marked a one-year ban yesterday on U.S. beef imports over mad cow fears with little indication of repealing the measure, which has closed a billion-dollar market to American beef producers and ravaged Japanese restaurateurs.

Japan shut out U.S. beef imports last December after the discovery of the first U.S. case of the mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy — a brain-wasting illness that can be fatal to humans who eat contaminated beef.

The ban blocked American beef exporters from what was once their most lucrative overseas market with sales exceeding $1.7 billion in 2003.

It also pummeled the local food industry, which depended on cheap, plentiful U.S. beef imports. Nationwide chains serving "gyudon" beef-bowls — a lunchtime favorite — were forced to take the dish off their menus, causing a public outcry.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was noncommittal yesterday when asked about when trade might resume.

"Experts are considering it," he told reporters. "Food safety is important. We will handle this issue with such a view."

Japan checks all domestically bred cows entering the food chain, and initially demanded that the United States adopt similar blanket testing.

Washington had resisted, dismissing such testing as costly and unreliable in detecting infections among young cows.

Amid high-stakes negotiations, the two sides struck a deal in October to resume limited imports of American beef into Japan. Officials said products from cows younger than 21 months old would resume within a matter of weeks, while imports of products from older animals could resume after July.

But those plans have been delayed by a dispute over how to determine the age of cattle, and local media reports have predicted the ban is likely to stay in place until at least the spring.

With public concern about mad cow disease still prevalent, Japan has also yet to relax its own domestic inspection system for young cattle headed to market.

Total domestic losses over the past year stemming from the U.S. beef ban are estimated at $2.64 billion, according to the UFJ Institute, a private research institute. Of that, the food service industry was hit the hardest with losses of $1.24 billion, said Masahiko Ariji from the institute's research and development department.