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US Beef Smells Fishy

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Message J.T. Cassidy

This month US beef got a clean bill of health from the World Organization for Animal Health, the international body that sets global safety standards for meat, milk and eggs. That’s just not good enough for Japanese consumers though. Japan refused to lift its partial ban on US beef due to continuing fear over Mad Cow Disease (MCD). While it’s been over six months since Japan partially lifted the ban it initially imposed on US beef in December of 2003 after MCD was discovered in Washington State, nobody’s biting. January figures from the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries show that imports are about one tenth of what they were before the ban was first imposed. Those numbers coupled with consumer opinion polls reveal that the majority of Japanese see the all-American beef patty as akin to death on the grill.

Fear is everywhere. Shortly after the ban was eased this summer, warning signs began cropping up. In big bold letters posted on walls, restaurant owners assured patrons that the beef they would eat that day came from nowhere near the USA. Over time those warnings have become a permanent fixture of more than a few menus and advertisements that note just where restaurants buy their beef from and most often it’s from Australia.

Before the ban, Japan was the biggest foreign customer of U.S. beef. When MCD reared its head in the U.S., Japan insisted that American beef go through the same rigid testing required for its domestic beef. Japan boasts the world’s tightest safety net guarding against MCD. On top of measures to ensure the safe feeding and raising of livestock, Japan conducts blanket testing for MCD on all cows destined for the dinner plate.

Although it’s been six months since the ban was partially lifted, a trip to any Tokyo area supermarket will leave you asking: Where’s the U.S. beef? With a few notable exceptions, like the handful of Costco's in Japan, most supermarkets won’t touch it. Retailers, including the Wal-Mart owned Seiyu grocery chain, are reluctant to abandon distribution channels they’ve built mainly with Australia over the last few years.

The biggest barrier for U.S. beef is fear. Although Japan has officially confirmed only one case of the human variant of MCD, the public is afraid that lowering the bar for U.S. beef has made them more vulnerable to the disease. Before the first box of American beef was unloaded off the plane this summer, the Consumer Union of Japan’s Hiroko Mizuhara declared that consumers were "not buying food we suspect has U.S. beef in it," and that’s just what they’ve done. Consumers have in effect reinforced the ban at the cash register by choosing not to buy American beef.

American cattle barons could easily get back in the saddle with the Japanese if they gave them the safeguards they want. They’ll pay for it. Japanese consumers readily fork over more than twice as much to buy domestic beef for safety’s sake. Perhaps our beef barons are afraid that customers closer to home might demand equal treatment. Safer livestock raising practices and testing just don’t seem to figure into the budget of major US beef producers. A relatively small US producer of hormone-free and antibiotic-free beef products, Creekstone Farms, wanted to test its cows for MCD in attempt to get back in the Japanese market. Then something (read: big Ag) prodded the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to put a stop to Creekstone’s efforts. The fact that the USDA won’t let Creekstone test for MCD only makes American beef smell kind of fishy to Japanese consumers.

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JT Cassidy resides in Yokohama, Japan. His writings have appeared in the Baltimore Sun, Commonweal Magazine, Common Dreams, Counterpunch, the Japan Times, and elsewhere.

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