Hours after Japan ended a trade ban imposed because of mad-cow disease, U.S. ranchers and meatpackers began rounding up their first shipment...

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WASHINGTON — Hours after Japan ended a trade ban imposed because of mad-cow disease, U.S. ranchers and meatpackers began rounding up their first shipment of beef to Japan.

The shipment is to be sent Saturday from Denver, but the industry cautioned that trade will resume slowly.

Japan’s market, once the biggest for U.S. beef, was worth $1.4 billion before mad-cow disease turned up in the United States in December 2003. The discovery prompted Japan and dozens of other countries to stop importing U.S. beef.

“Just to regain that market share we had before will take some time,” said Missouri cattle rancher Mike John, president-elect of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

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Earlier this month, John helped organize an auction of 7,000 cattle in Joplin, Mo., whose beef would qualify for shipment to Japan. New rules limit beef destined for Japan to animals 20 months or younger. New paperwork and tracking requirements also were imposed.

Beyond that, Japanese consumers will need convincing, said North Dakota rancher Dick Tokach.

A survey by Japan’s Kyodo news agency found about 75 percent of Japanese unwilling to eat U.S. beef because of mad-cow fears. Twenty-one percent said they would consume it.

Japan lifted its ban late Sunday, and the United States responded Monday morning by agreeing to allow the importation of Japanese beef. The U.S. appetite for Japanese beef, primarily expensive Kobe steaks, is more of a niche market worth an estimated $808,000 annually.

Since finding mad-cow disease in a Washington state heifer in December 2003, the U.S. confirmed a second case in June in a Texas-born cow. Japan has confirmed 21 cases of mad-cow disease.