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Report: Misunderstanding Led to Shipment of Prohibited Veal to Japan

The Bush administration said Friday a New York meatpacker and a government inspector misunderstood new trade rules when they allowed prohibited veal to be shipped to Japan.

The Japanese government replied there was no rush to resume imports of American beef, which was halted again when the shipment was discovered last month.

At issue is a shipment of veal that arrived in Japan on Jan. 19. The cuts of veal — hotel rack and trimmed loin — contained backbone, which Asian countries consider at risk for mad cow disease. The cuts are eaten in the United States and are allowed under international trade rules, but Japan's rules are stricter.

U.S. officials on Friday delivered a 475-page report to Tokyo explaining why Brooklyn-based Atlantic Veal & Lamb sent the shipment of prohibited veal cuts. They also laid out several steps the U.S. has taken to prevent further mistakes.

"I believe this is a very robust response to a single incident that did not present a danger to the public," Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns told reporters on a conference call. "My hope is that it will not be long before beef trade resumes."

However, Japanese Agriculture Minister Shoichi Nakagawa said, "I have no intention to rush to a conclusion."

After a briefing in Tokyo by U.S. Ambassador Thomas Schieffer, Nakagawa told reporters: "I'm not trying to prolong the process, but it takes time to explain the report to the Parliament and the public. Nothing has been decided as to what steps we will take next."

The mistake jeopardized a trading relationship worth millions of dollars to U.S. producers. Japan's market was worth $1.4 billion annually when its government banned American beef in response to the first U.S. case of mad cow disease in 2003. Only recently had the ban been lifted.

"Not only do we have to lift this ban, we have to win back Japanese consumers," said Schieffer. "We hope this investigation will assure all our Japanese consumers that we take their concerns seriously."

According to the Agriculture Department report, a Japanese customer had ordered those cuts from Atlantic Veal. Atlantic and its supplier, Ohio-based Golden Veal Corp., became the first and only companies allowed to send veal to Japan. That certification is now rescinded.

Plant officials were told repeatedly they couldn't ship backbone to Japan, the report said. They were admonished by the department's Agricultural Marketing Service, which certifies exporters.

However, the federal meat inspector at the plant didn't understand the rules, the report said. Inspectors work for the department's Food Safety and Inspection Service, which is a separate agency from AMS.

The inspector glanced over the boxes of veal and counted them, made sure the weight was right and signed off on the shipment, the report said.

A second signature was required from an FSIS veterinarian, who gave the OK because he saw the inspector's signature, the report said. The veterinarian didn't know the plant could ship beef to Japan and didn't know about the export rules, according to the report.

Inspectors are undergoing more training, and the two agencies will work more closely together, the department said.

The report identifies a second violation that was not discovered by Japan. The veal shipment contained tongues and sweetbreads, or thymus glands, from the Golden Veal plant. Those calf parts are allowed in Japan, but the plant had not been certified to ship them, the report said.

As a condition for resuming imports, Japan had imposed several restrictions — beef must come from cattle younger than 21 months of age, and tissues that can carry mad cow disease, such as the backbone, brain, skull, eyes and other nerve tissue, must be removed.

The U.S., in contrast, requires removal of at-risk parts from animals older than 30 months, although there is a short list of tissues that must be removed from younger animals.

The medical name for mad cow disease is bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE. BSE is a degenerative nerve disease in cattle, and eating contaminated meat products has been linked to the rare but fatal variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

In all, the U.S. has confirmed two cases of mad cow disease, while Japan has found 22 cases of the disease.