December 16, 2011


Japan to increase US beef imports' age limit


The current 20 months cattle age limit set for US beef imports is being planned to be raised by Japan to 30 months, the health ministry said Thursday (Dec 15).


The ministry said it will seek the opinion of the Cabinet Office's Food Safety Commission on Monday on the risks involved in the deregulation. The age limit is in place due to concerns over mad cow disease. If the commission gives the go signal, the import restrictions will be eased in the middle of next year at the earliest.


Japan banned imports of US beef in 2003 after the outbreak of the disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, but resumed imports in 2005 with the current age limit in place.


Washington has prodded Tokyo to ease the restrictions since 2007, with US President Barack Obama reiterating the request to Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda at a bilateral summit in September. It is widely believed that the US will take up the issue at preliminary bilateral consultations, expected to start early next year, for the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade talks.


The ministry will also seek the commission's views on its plan to set a new age limit for beef imports from Canada, France and the Netherlands. Japan currently imposes the same age limit as the US on Canadian beef while banning all beef imports from the other two countries. It will also propose that mandatory checks for BSE infection should be conducted on domestic cattle that are over 30 months old, instead of over 20 months at present.


Tokyo currently calls for the removal of brain, spinal cord and spine--parts with a high risk of accumulation of abnormal prion proteins, which are believed to cause BSE--from all beef, whether domestic or imported.


As for this removal requirement, the ministry also intends to seek the commission's view on subjecting it to only cattle over 30 months.


In October, the ministry announced its intention to review the beef import regulations, as a decade has passed since the disease appeared in Japan and it has been on the decline globally. Explaining the 30-month threshold, the ministry said the age limit is a widely adopted international standard and that the symptoms tend to develop in older cattle.

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