While the re-opening of the Japanese market might hurt processors due to the expected subsequent rise in price for their domestic beef supplies, they will also gain by being able to import from that country.
Yesterday the US department of agriculture (USDA) announced that it is amending the regulations governing the importation of meat and other edible animal products to reestablish, under certain conditions, the importation of whole cuts of boneless beef from Japan.
The announcement follows Japan's decision yesterday to re-open its market to US beef. Japan was the largest importer of US beef prior to 2003, when mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), was discovered in cattle. Japan banned imports of US beef from Canada in May 2003 and from the US seven months later.
The US had a ban in place against certain beef imports from Japan since September 2001. The US prohibited the importation of ruminants and most ruminant products from Japan following the confirmation of BSE in a native-born cow in that country.
Now the USDA proposes to amend the import regulations by allowing the importation of whole cuts of boneless beef from Japan under specified conditions.
The USDA says importers will have to ensure that it they are sourcing meat from an establishment that is eligible to have its products imported to US under the Federal Meat Inspection Act.
This includes provisions that specified-risk materials (SRMs) must be removed under appropriate conditions. SRM refers to brain and spinal cord tissues.
US requirements also prohibit the use of air-injection stunning devices or use of the pithing method to kill the cattle. Pithing is a physical method of rendering an animal brain dead by destroying the cerebral hemispheres with a sharp probe.
The measures must be certified on an original certificate issued by an authorised veterinary official from the Japanese government.
Japan has also imposed a series of rules US beef exporters will have to follow. The government's food safety agencies will only allow imports from cattle aged up to 20 months. Exporters will also have to remove any SRMs, such as brains and spinal cords.
Japan will also require that its inspectors get access to beef processing sites in the US and Canada. The food agency recommended that the Japanese government temporarily stop imports if evidence of inadequate management arises.
Under Japan's law, raw beef products must carry labels stating the country of origin. However, mixed ground meat and processed food have looser labeling regulations, leaving it up to individual businesses and restaurants to provide the information.
US agriculture secretary Mike Johanns said the rules would make 94 per cent of total US ruminant and ruminant products available for export to Japan. With the opening of Japan, 67 countries have now established trade to at least selected U.S. beef and beef products.
Johanns called on other countries to follow Japan's example. Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, China and Singapore are among those countries still closed to US beef.
Japan was the US' largest export market for beef prior to 2003. In 2003, the US exported $1.4 billion worth of beef and beef products to Japan. Prior to the December 2003 discovery of the first BSE-infected cow in the US, the country exported beef and beef products to 119 countries.
After the first case of BSE was discovered in Washington US beef exports fell by 64 per cent, with Japan representing half that market. About 41 per cent of the traditional export markets, or $3bn remain closed to US beef.
BSE, or mad cow disease, first appeared in North America when the disease was detected in an Alberta heifer in May 2003. Two other cases were subsequently discovered. The US and other countries then closed their borders to Canadian beef. Two other cases of BSE were subsequently found in Canada this year. One case of BSE was discovered in the US in Washington state in December 2003.
Several countries also banned US beef imports as they previously did Canadian imports. While some have relaxed restrictions, Japan, previously the largest foreign market for US beef, did not. South Korea also kept a ban in place.
In June this year the confirmation of a second case of BSE in the US led to fears that Japan would delay lifting the ban. The discovery was made at a time when the US meat industry was struggling to persuade Japan and South Korea to re-open their markets to US beef exports.
Since the bans were put in place the US has since put a new BSE cattle testing system in place.
A study released this April by the Kansas Agriculture Department estimates the industry lost up to $4.7 billion last year because of the mad cow case in Washington.
Scientists believe eating the BSE infected beef is the cause of the human variant, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a fatal brain disorder that led to the death of about 150 people, mostly in the UK in the 1990s.