U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said Thursday it could be just days before the first shipment of U.S. beef in two years is on...

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BILLINGS, Mont. — U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said Thursday it could be just days before the first shipment of U.S. beef in two years is on its way to Japan.

Johanns, who spoke to a convention of farmers and ranchers here, told reporters that he was optimistic about the prospect of beef trade resuming with Japan for the first time since a case of mad-cow disease was discovered in Central Washington in December 2003.

Japan’s Food Safety Commission on Thursday said U.S. beef was as safe as that country’s, a move that could clear the way for the Japanese government to at least partially lift the ban on U.S. beef shipments and allow in meat from younger animals.

“Now, I wish I could tell you that the bell will ring at noon on Monday or noon on Tuesday, or noon today,” he said. “But the reality is, that we are really to a point where I think we’re in the final piece of this.”

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The U.S. is also moving toward easing its ban on beef from Japan, Johanns said. Japan has reported 20 cases of mad-cow disease, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We’ve done our homework, we’ve done our analysis, and we’ll be ready to go,” Johanns said, noting the beef would be subject to certain restrictions.

Japan is looking at limiting U.S. beef shipments to products from cattle younger than 21 months, a cutoff that some agricultural leaders have said has no scientific basis.

Beef from such cattle represented just 10 to 20 percent of U.S. exports to Japan before the ban took effect, according to Wendy Cutler, assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Japan.

“It’s a partial reopening. We welcome that,” Cutler said on the eve of the announcement. “But, clearly we would like to see a full reopening and see them abide by international standards in this area.”

Cutler was in Seattle for trade talks with her Japanese counterparts. The discussions were triggered by a regulatory initiative launched by President Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2001 to strengthen economic ties between their countries.

Cutler said the beef ban has been an “irritant in the relationship” between the U.S. and Japan, but not a destabilizing one.

“Japan and the United States are the two largest economies in the world. We’re close allies. We’re very close trading partners,” she said.

Seattle Times reporter David Bowermaster contributed comments by the assistant U.S. Trade Representative.