U.S. beef shipments to Japan could resume within weeks under a new agreement, but the Bush administration cautioned Wednesday that the deal to restore trade interrupted by Japanese mad-cow disease concerns could still fall through.
"I don't want this to be regarded as something bigger than it is," Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns told reporters in his office. "It's a step along the way, certainly a helpful step, but we still don't have beef there."
Hours earlier, Japan announced it would end a ban on importing U.S. beef pending inspections of American meat processing plants. Audit teams will arrive this weekend and complete their work by July 21, Johanns said.
Japan suspended shipments in January after inspectors found a veal shipment containing backbone, which Asian countries consider at risk for mad cow disease. The cuts are considered safe in the United States and elsewhere, but Japan has stricter rules.
U.S. lawmakers, impatient for trade to resume, have threatened sanctions unless Japan's market reopens by Aug. 31. A bipartisan group of senators held a news conference Wednesday to push forward with tariffs.
"Until there is a specific date for actual trade to resume, and product is at port in Japan, it's not a done deal," said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.
Lawmakers' misgivings reflect a guarded response from the beef industry. Terry Stokes, CEO of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said the dispute with Japan has endured "years of empty promises and continued delays."
"U.S. beef producers remain skeptical of Japan's dependability as a trading partner," Stokes said.
Japan once was the top export market for U.S. beef, worth $1.4 billion annually. But Japan banned American beef in response to the first U.S. case of mad cow disease in 2003. The ban had only recently been lifted when Japan closed its ports again in January.
American producers want Japan to drop its insistence on imports of beef from very young cattle, those less than 20 months of age. Japan wants the age cutoff because infection levels from mad cow disease are believed to rise with age, although international standards call for restrictions at 30 months of age.
Japan appears to have conceded on another issue important to the industry. If another violation is found, Japan has agreed to target individual shipments rather than halt all trade, Johanns said.
"There has to be a better way of trading than to close the whole border if there is a problem," Johanns said. "We don't do that for cars. We don't do that for tires."
Also part of the agreement, according to a statement distributed by Japanese officials, are surprise inspections of plants authorized to send beef to Japan. U.S. authorities will do the inspections and Japanese inspectors will accompany them, according to the statement.
Mad cow disease is the common term for a brain-wasting disease in cattle called bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE. In people, eating meat contaminated with BSE is linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, a rare and deadly nerve disease.
In all, the United States has found three cases of mad cow disease, while Japan has found 27 cases, according to the World Organization for Animal Health.