TOKYO — Japan is set to ease a decade-old restriction on U.S. beef this week, finally allowing U.S. ranchers and meatpackers to move past the mad-cow scare and regain full access to what was once their most lucrative market.
A Japanese government council that oversees food and drug safety cleared a change in import regulations Monday that would permit imports of meat from U.S. cattle age 30 months or younger, rather than the current 20 months, according to materials distributed at the council’s meeting in Tokyo.
The change is to take effect Friday for U.S. beef processed after that date, and shipments could start arriving in Japan in mid-February, according to the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture. Bans remain on parts of cattle considered to carry a higher risk of transmitting the disease.
Japan will also allow imports of meat from cows age 30 months or younger from France and the Netherlands. It currently has total bans on beef imports from those countries after mad-cow scares there.
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Japan, the world’s largest net importer of food, slapped a ban on U.S. beef in 2003 after bovine spongiform encephalopathy, more commonly known as mad-cow disease, was found in a single cow in Washington state.
Humans are thought to catch the disease’s fatal human variant, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, by eating meat, including brain and spinal-cord tissue, from contaminated carcasses.
Japan eased the ban in 2006, but only for meat from cattle 20 months or younger, an age limit U.S. exporters said had no scientific basis. Japanese officials argued the incidence of the disease was higher in older animals.
Japanese beef producers have found dozens of cases of mad-cow disease in their cattle herds. The Japanese authorities say they test all market-bound cattle for the disease.
Tokyo has demanded that U.S. meatpackers also test all export-bound cows, but the beef industry has balked at what would be a prohibitively expensive measure. Some experts also doubt the efficacy of such tests.
Japan’s restrictions have been painful for U.S. exporters. In 2003, Japan was the largest market for U.S. beef, with exports of $1.4 billion. After the ban was eased, U.S. beef exports to Japan recovered only to about a sixth of that level.
The U.S. beef industry has long called on the federal government to do more to urge Japan to relax its restrictions. In 2010, President Obama sent Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to Tokyo to press the government to accept incremental steps to revive the beef trade, including gradually raising its age restriction.
Japan started discussing easing the age limit in late 2011. The move cleared its final hurdle Monday, when the food and drug-safety council agreed with a government-appointed expert panel that the measure “posed little or no risk” to public health.