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Japan Beef Exports and Johanns Future Await Slaughterhouse Audits

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Message Martha Rosenberg
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Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns probably wishes he never heard the words "mad cow" or left the governor's office in Nebraska.

He probably envies his predecessor, Ann Veneman, who turned the whole thing around--it seemed--by banning downers in human food and is now safely ensconced at the UN doing good deeds.

His legacy might have been reopening beef exports to Japan--which represented 10% of US beef sales--after the discovery of domestic mad cows inspired a boycott. But noooooo-

After Japan found illegible ribs--seven stinking ribs--in a veal shipment, a year of negotiations were down the drain. And that was just the beginning!

A USDA audit in March designed to win back Japan's trust did just the opposite.
Nine meatpackers and slaughterhouses were in noncompliance and the gigantic Swift & Co. plant in Grand Island, Nebraska was banned from shipping beef to Japan altogether.

Worse, 29 downers were found to have gotten in the human food supply, some without being tested for mad cow, because inspectors "did not believe that they had the authority" to go into pens.

(Johanns said they were fine when they got to the slaughterhouse but for one reason or another became unable to walk, which also describes his tenure in office.)

Then instead of thanking him for his efforts to reopen cattle markets, US ranchers and packers attacked him.

R-CALF USA, a rancher advocacy group, sued the government for trying to reopen the Canadian border to beef imports after the discovery of mad cows made the US close it. (Like Japan, we don't want to import mad cow beef either.) They didn't want the imports crowding their market.

And Creekstone Farms Premium Beef, a packer in Arkansas City, Kansas sued for the right to test its own animals instead of relying on government labs, to please its biggest customer. You guessed it--Japan!

And when Japan finally agreed last month, after more negotiations, to reconsider imports if it can inspect our slaughterhouses-- thousands of slaughterhouses refused! Saying in effect, we're not that broke.

"There are a lot of guys who don't want to go through the hassle of these inspections," explained Deven Scott, executive vice president of the North American Meat Processors Association. Especially because there will be follow-up surprise inspections, he might have added.

And there have been other hiccoughs along the way.

Like USDA's misdiagnosis of the second US mad cow, born in Texas, for seven months which allowed its untested herdmates and offspring to end up on US dinner plates early in Johanns' watch.

And the convocation of industry representatives--including McDonald's vice president Dick Crawford--who admonished the FDA earlier this year that they needed better guidelines for meat safety. Whose side are they on?

Of course there's been some good news too.

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Martha Rosenberg is an award-winning investigative public health reporter who covers the food, drug and gun industries. Her first book, Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health, is distributed by Random (more...)

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