Japan Gives No Timetable on Ending US Beef Ban
US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, in Tokyo as part of an Asian tour, pressed Japan to lift its ban on imports of US beef imposed in late 2003 after the United States reported its first case of mad cow disease. The trade was worth more than $1 billion a year.
Japan agreed in October to allow shipments of beef from young US cattle once technical details were worked out. But some US lawmakers say Japan is now dragging its feet and have suggested retaliatory economic sanctions.
"I said that I cannot say specifically when a conclusion will be reached," Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura told reporters after talks with Rice.
Machimura added that it was important for Japan's government as a whole to resolve the problem so that it did not hurt US-Japan relations.
At the meeting, Rice urged a quick resolution to the dispute, which has denied US farmers access to their biggest overseas market for beef and has hurt several Japanese restaurant chains that relied on cheap US meat.
"The time has come to solve this problem," Rice said earlier in a policy speech at a university in Tokyo.
"I want to assure you that American beef is safe and that we care deeply about the safety of food in the world," Rice said.
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi also told Rice in a separate meeting that Japan needed to tackle the issue in a way that would not harm relations with the United States, a Japanese official said after Koizumi and Rice met.
But Koizumi added that food safety issues needed to be handled according to domestic procedures.
Japanese consumers remain sceptical over the safety of US meat, an attitude unlikely to change after Japan confirmed in February its first death from the human variant of mad cow.
The victim is believed to have contracted the illness from eating infected beef in Britain.
Tokyo requires testing of all beef products for the fatal, brain-wasting disease formally called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), but a food safety panel is considering a change in policy to waive tests for cattle no older than 20 months.
Japan's Food Safety Commission has said that a subcommittee on mad cow disease would meet on March 28 to approve the proposed policy change.
But a Commission official said on Friday there were still hurdles to be cleared before Japan could resume US beef imports, adding that after the domestic policy is approved, the government would then look at US policy.
After receiving a draft report from the subcommittee, which has been meeting since last October, the Commission will hold public hearings to gather information from consumers, he said.
That is expected to take about a month, with a final report to submitted to the government for approval in May at the earliest.