October 28, 2011
Japanese government reviews mad cow policy measures
The Japanese government has started a major evaluation of the control it has taken to protect its consumers from the danger caused by mad cow disease cattle.
The government is considering easing its rigorous beef safety regulations, which require testing for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), better known as mad cow disease, of all cattle older than 20 months slaughtered for human consumption. The most important of the expected changes is raising the age threshold to over 30 months.
The government says it will also reconsider restrictions on beef imports from such countries as the US and Canada, in line with the changes in the BSE testing regime.
Given that there have been few new reported incidents of the brain-wasting disease, a reasonable case can be made for relaxing the stringent safety guidelines. The number of BSE cases reported worldwide peaked at 37,000 in 1992 and has since fallen steadily, to 45 last year. There have been no new BSE cases in Japan involving an animal born in 2003 or later.
The sharp decline in BSE cases over the past two decades is credited to the global ban on the use of meat and bone meal (MBM) in animal feed. Feeding MBM to cattle is believed to have been responsible for the spread of BSE, which is known to cause a variant strain of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.
Easing of the BSE testing regime should be premised on continued strict enforcement of the ban on MBM. It is also necessary to maintain mandatory removal of high-risk parts such as brain and spinal cord, which tend to accumulate prions, the rogue proteins believed to cause mad cow disease.
The World Organisation for Animal Health recognises the need to remove these parts from cows older than 30 months.
In 2006, a shipment of beef from the US was found to contain banned spinal cord material, raising concerns about the safety of American beef. On Tuesday, customs officials at the port of Tokyo found boxes of beef imported from the US that had no information on how old the cattle were at the time of slaughter.
The government must repeat its strong calls on the US and other beef exporters to ensure compliance with Japan's beef safety regulations. This is all the more important if the guidelines are to be eased.
As beef imports from the US have declined, Australian beef has increased its share in the Japanese market. In 2005, Australia introduced a mandatory livestock traceability system using radio frequency identification tags to boost confidence in the safety of Australian beef.
In the US, traceability programmes are voluntary and carried out at the level of individual cattle farms. The government should urge the US to improve its beef safety management system.
After many countries slapped restrictions on food imports from Japan in the wake of the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the government has been urging its trading partners to base their food safety regulations on sound scientific principles.
In the same vein, the government should make changes to its BSE prevention measures based on good science. It should show clear scientific grounds for the regulations concerning the age of cattle subject to mandatory testing and parts removal. It should also offer detailed and persuasive explanations of its safety guidelines so that they are accepted internationally.