TOKYO – Japan agreed Wednesday to lift its ban on U.S. beef imports, pending planned inspections of U.S. meat processing plants, the agriculture ministry said. The Asian nation imposed the ban over concerns about mad cow disease.
The breakthrough resolves a thorny, long-running trade dispute between the allies, and gives U.S. ranchers access to what was once their most lucrative export market.
"Japan agreed to resume U.S. beef imports on the condition that we find no further problems during onsite inspections," said agriculture ministry official Hiroaki Ogura.
U.S. officials had no immediate comment.
American beef shipments to Japan were halted in January after Japanese officials found a veal shipment that contained backbone, which Asian countries consider at risk for mad cow disease. The cuts are eaten in the United States and other countries, but Japan's rules are stricter.
Kyodo News agency reported that the inspections are meant to ensure that U.S. processing facilities conform with Japanese food safety guidelines. Officials from Japan's health and agriculture ministries will inspect 35 meatpacking plants certified to ship beef to Japan to see if they are complying with export requirements, Kyodo said citing government officials.
Only facilities whose safeguards meet Japanese standards will be authorized to export to Japan, the report said. Japanese officials will also be allowed to accompany U.S. counterparts on spot inspections of U.S. facilities, it added. The accord requires the U.S. side to conduct the spot inspections.
The accord was worked out via a video conference directed by Japanese Agriculture Ministry's consumption safety director, Hiroshi Nakagawa, and his U.S. Agriculture Department counterpart, Chuck Lambert, deputy undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs.
At stake was a trading relationship worth millions of dollars to the U.S. beef industry. Japan's market was worth $1.4 billion annually when it banned American beef in response to the first U.S. case of mad cow disease in 2003.
The ban had only recently been lifted before Japan halted shipments.
The U.S. Agriculture Department says that New York-based Atlantic Veal & Lamb and a government inspector misunderstood new trade rules when they allowed prohibited veal to be shipped to Japan.
American officials had been impatient for trade to resume, with several U.S. senators saying Tuesday they are introducing a bill that would impose trade sanctions if Japan does not reopen its market to U.S. beef by Aug. 31.
The agreement comes as Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi prepares to visit President Bush at the end of this month. The two leaders are scheduled to meet in Washington on June 29 and travel to Elvis Presley's Graceland home in Memphis, Tenn., the next day.
Mad cow disease is medically known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE. In humans, eating meat contaminated with BSE is linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, a rare and deadly nerve disease.