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Japan to ease restrictions on US beef

Publication Date : 06-09-2012


A Japanese government panel has given the green light to easing restrictions on US beef imports, denying there are health risks associated with mad cow disease in beef from cattle aged up to 30 months.

The government plans to raise the age threshold for import restrictions on US beef from cattle aged up to 20 months to up to 30 months.

An expert panel of the Cabinet Office's Food Safety Commission, which had been examining the government's plan, approved Wednesday a draft food safety assessment that concluded health risks were "very small" at most, and that the impact on human health would be "negligible" if the government eased the restrictions as planned.

After the Food Safety Commission's approval of the assessment, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry will be notified, specific procedures to ease the restrictions will then be put in place, sources said.

Imports of US beef were suspended in December 2003 after a suspected case of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). Imports resumed in December 2005 only for beef from cattle aged up to 20 months.

Since BSE-infected cattle aged 21 months and 23 months have been found in Japan, easing the restrictions to allow imports of beef from cattle up to 30 months old had been a point of contention.

Business circles, including the restaurant industry, have pushed for raising the age limit, hoping to obtain more high-quality meat. The United States has also urged the government to ease the restrictions.

The number of BSE cases reported worldwide has dropped sharply from its peak of about 37,000 cattle in 1992 to only 29 cases last year, according to the ministry and other sources. No case has been detected in Japan since 2009.

The panel also reviewed a report that abnormal prions from the infected 21-month-old and 23-month-old cattle caused no infections in experiments on mice.

The panel therefore concluded the health risk associated with easing the import restrictions would be negligible.

The government currently allows imports of Canadian beef only from cattle aged up to 20 months. Restrictions on Canadian beef will be relaxed to match the controls on US meat.

The government currently bans beef imports from France and the Netherlands, but plans to allow beef from cows up to 30 months old in line with the rules for the United States and Canada.

The government also plans to raise the age of cattle subject to domestic screenings from the current 21 months or older to 31 months or older.

Specified risk materials, such as brains and spinal cords, are currently prohibited from being removed from slaughterhouses, regardless of the age of the cow. The government intends to make only material from cattle aged 31 months or older subject to this rule.

The study panel also approved these measures in its draft assessment.

According to the Agriculture and Livestock Industries Corporation, beef imports from the United States, which stood at about 360,000 tonnes in fiscal 2000, were about 120,000 tonnes in fiscal 2011.


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