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New ban delivers body blow to US beef in Japan
Updated: 2006-01-24 11:16

Just a month after Japan reopened its market to US beef, trade has again been suspended and even if imports resume, consumers here are increasingly wary after the latest safety scare.

"I no longer eat US beef because of the mad cow issue," said Takayuki Arakawa, a 35-year-old engineer, who had lived in the United States for about a decade as a student.

"After hearing the news about the shipment with risky material...I thought it was expected and only a matter of time," he said. "I think the reinstatement of the import ban was only reasonable."

Many other consumers echoed his views after Tokyo again banned US beef Friday after finding that a US meat packer exported a shipment that included spinal columns, which can pass on mad cow disease.

Under intense pressure from its closest ally, Japan in December agreed to resume US beef imports that were suspended in 2003 after a mad-cow case was discovered in a herd in Washington state.

Japan agreed to resume US and Canadian beef imports last month provided they came from cattle no more than 20 months old and contained no risky animal parts, such as brains and spinal material, to ensure against disease.

The new ban highlighted the risk taken by companies that chose to import US beef.

Marunaka Co., a supermarket chain in the southwestern Shikoku region, started selling US beef last week and had to pull some six million yen (52,300 dollars) worth of US beef from its stores.

"Should we ban all US beef only because of the mistake made by one meat packer? What about the meat being properly processed by trusted, major meat packing firms, from which we import?" said Takahiro Horita, who is in charge of the meat section of Marunaka.

"The blanket ban damages them (US meat packers), just as it damages us," he said.

Consumer Japan, a major consumers' association that groups 43 organizations, said that Japanese consumers have voiced questions, doubts and fears over the resumption of US beef imports.

"It is not because we do not want US beef. We are saying the risk-monitoring systems for US meat producers and exporters were not fully explained to us," said the group's spokesman.

"Our fear was only proven true. The Japanese government will have to spend a long time talking to Japanese consumers about the issue before resuming imports again from America," he said.

Japan said in December it would send teams to check conditions in the United States but Horita, the meat importer, said the Tokyo government should do so more rigorously to inspect and certify US meat.

"Everything that the government has been doing is vague and not thoroughly explained. It can only build worries among Japanese consumers as well as distrust among US producers," he said.

The ban is a devastating blow for the US farming industry as Japan was the number one overseas market for its beef, buying 1.7 billion dollars' worth in 2002. Japan had imposed a similar ban on Canadian beef in May 2003.

US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick offered regret about the violation of the safety guidelines as he met Monday with senior Japanese leaders.

Governments of the two countries this week are holding talks on lifting the ban, but it could take a great deal of assurance to win back Japanese consumers.

A December survey taken by Kyodo News showed 75 percent of Japanese surveyed would be unwilling to eat the beef, with many saying they would keep buying the meat from Australia -- the biggest beneficiary of the US beef ban.

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