By RICHARD SMITH
For the Capital Press
TOKYO -- Japan may be opening the door for more wheat purchases from the United States, but the U.S. wheat industry is exercising cautious optimism.
A top Japanese agricultural official said Wednesday that his nation planned to resume purchases of U.S. wheat this week.
The announcement follows South Korea's re-entry into the market on Tuesday.
Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries grain trade and operation division deputy director Toru Hisazome told Capital Press today that his ministry had tentatively scheduled lifting the purchasing freeze for July 11 but cautioned, "It is subject to change."
The ministry used a USDA testing method to determine whether U.S. soft white wheat stored in Japan had been genetically modified. All tests came out negative, a ministry press release said.
U.S. Wheat Associates communications specialist Julia Debes said Japan regularly purchases western white wheat, a blend of soft white wheat and club wheat, a subclass of soft white wheat primarily grown in the Pacific Northwest.
The Japanese tender was announced for a bulk cargo for club wheat only, not western white wheat, Debes said.
"This tender for club wheat resulted from a MAFF decision about three weeks ago, before the release of their testing results," Debes said. "This tender was designed as a stop-gap purchase to assure they have the supplies they needed while waiting for their regular tenders of western white to resume."
Japan has still suspended new purchases of western white wheat, Debes said.
"We haven't seen any official announcement, but we're hoping soon," she said. "We are continuing to work with our counterparts in Japan and USDA to help them make an informed decision about the market and testing situations."
The final results of the tender were to be available Thursday, Debes said.
South Korean millers said Tuesday they would resume purchases of soft white winter wheat from the U.S., lifting the freeze on purchases that followed the discovery of genetically modified wheat in a field in Oregon.
Japan is the top importer of U.S. wheat and South Korea is the fourth-largest importer.
Oregon Wheat CEO Blake Rowe was unaware of South Korea tendering any offers yet to purchase U.S. soft white wheat, but said the return to the market looks like "business as usual," with the country conducting additional testing protocols.
"As to Korea, that's tremendous progress," he said. "As to Japan, we would rather see a return to the general soft white or western white market. I'm not aware we have gotten to that point yet."
Rowe said discussions are ongoing, noting the USDA investigation is not complete, which is important to customers and the ministry in Japan.
"It's still a work in progress," he said. "The next step hasn't really changed -- it's getting more information to them, getting their questions answered and getting the investigation complete. It's really in Japan's hands as to when the decision is finally made."
Capital Press reporter Matthew Weaver contributed to this story.