Spinal bones found in September shipment from Nebraska
By MARI YAMAGUCHI
TOKYO -- Japan suspended beef shipments from an American meatpacker on Oct. 10 over its failure to remove cattle parts banned under a bilateral agreement, as officials in Japan raised concerns about U.S. safeguards against bovine spongiform encephalopathy.
Japanese quarantine inspectors found bovine spinal columns in one of 732 boxes shipped from Tyson Fresh Meats Inc., which arrived in Japan in late September, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries said. The box contained 35 pounds of chilled short loin with spinal bones, which were not released commercially, said ministry official Goshi Nakata. The suspension only affects Tyson's factory in Lexington, Neb., one of 46 meatpacking plants approved to export beef to Japan.
It was the second suspension for the Lexington factory, Nakata said. Japan slapped a four-month ban on beef shipments from the same plant in February 2007 after finding two boxes of beef lacking verifications to show they came from cattle that met Japan's safety standards.
"It's extremely regrettable," said Agriculture Minister Hirotaka Akamatsu, who recently returned from meetings with U.S. trade and farm officials in Washington, D.C. "We need to closely examine if it was just a careless mistake or there is a systematic problem."
Japan's new ruling Democratic Party has proposed a tough response to any violation of a bilateral safety agreement, including a blanket ban on U.S. beef shipments.
The Japanese ministry has asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to investigate how the box containing the banned parts ended up in Japan.
Japan will await results of a U.S. investigation to determine the penalty for the Tyson factory, the ministry said.
Gary Mickelson, a spokesman for Tyson, called the delivery of that box a mix-up. He said the Springdale, Ark.-based company is investigating it and will work with the Agriculture Department to "take corrective measures" so the plant can start supplying Japanese customers again. He said Tyson has seven other beef plants approved to ship meat to Japan. It was not immediately clear how much meat Tyson ships to Japan, but Mickelson said it was not among its top five markets in 2008.
The problem surfaced just one day after U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk urged Akamatsu on Oct. 8 to lower Japan's strict safety standards in line with international standards.
"It was bad timing," said another Japanese agricultural official, Yusuke Hirata, referring to the Tyson shipment. "I hope the U.S. side would see it as an embarrassment and try to make an improvement."
Washington has repeatedly criticized Japan for its tough import restrictions, which authorities say have no scientific basis.
Under the bilateral trade agreement, U.S. exporters must remove spinal columns, brain tissue and other parts considered linked to BSE. U.S. beef shipments to Japan must also come only from cattle age 20 months or younger, which are believed to pose less of a risk.
U.S. officials have urged Japan to allow imports of beef from cattle aged at least up to 30 months, a widely used safety standard elsewhere, and possibly scrap age restrictions.
"We don't have a deadline, and we have not made any decisions as to whether we should change any safety standards," Hirata said. He said, however, a decision could be further delayed "if the latest incident was found to have involved serious violations."
Japan banned all U.S. beef imports in 2003 after the first case of BSE was discovered in the U.S. Japan resumed buying American beef in 2006 after the bilateral trade agreement setting new safety standards.
BSE, is a degenerative nerve disease in cattle. In humans, eating meat products contaminated with the illness is linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare and fatal malady.