TOKYO — Japan's position on restricting U.S. beef imports following the discovery of mad cow disease in the country in 2003 hasn't changed, a minister said, after the countries agreed today to continue talks on the issue.
"At the moment, unfortunately, there's some distance between Japan and the U.S., like a parallel line," Japan's Agriculture Minister Hirotaka Akamatsu told reporters after a meeting with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in Tokyo Thursday. "To overcome this difference, there is no objection to continued dialogue," Akamatsu said.
Japan was the largest overseas buyer of U.S. beef before it banned all imports after the first case of the brain-wasting disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, was discovered in the United States. The U.S. beef industry is losing about $1 billion a year in sales because of the restrictions, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
President Obama's administration has been increasing pressure on Japan to reopen its market to U.S. beef as part of a goal to double the country's exports in the next five years to spur growth and create jobs.
"The U.S. objective remains a framework that is consistent with science and international standards," Vilsack said in a statement, referring to a 2007 declaration by the World Organization for Animal Health, or OIE, that U.S. beef is safe.
"For us, food safety based on Japan's scientific standards is the priority," Akamatsu said. "The OIE standards are different from the Japanese scientific ones."
The Japanese ban was eased in 2005 to allow meat from cattle aged 20 months or less, which scientists say are less likely to have contracted the fatal illness. The U.S. cites an OIE vote in May 2007 that gave the country a "controlled-risk" rating for mad cow disease, which meant controls are effective and meat from U.S. cattle of any age can be safely traded.
OIE standards are used to settle trade disputes at the World Trade Organization.
"There is no change in our stance," Vice Agriculture Minister Masahiko Yamada told reporters at a briefing Thursday.
The Democratic Party of Japan government, which won power in September after 54 years of Liberal Democratic Party rule, may offer an opportunity to resolve a dispute that has limited the beef trade for seven years, Vilsack said March 30.
Japan isn't ready to ease restrictions because concerns about the disease persist, Yamada said April 1. The U.S. only "started implementing tighter rules over cattle feed last October," he said. The disease is transmitted to animals through contaminated feed.
Japan was the third-largest destination for U.S. beef last year, with trade totaling $470 million, up from $383 million in 2008, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation. That compares with $1.39 billion in 2003.
Mexico and Canada were the biggest buyers of U.S. beef last year.