Japan is set to enter the final phase of easing restrictions on beef imports from the United States and other Western nations following a report from the Food Safety Commission on Oct. 22.
Beef at a U.S. slaughterhouse (Asahi Shimbun file photo)
The restrictions were imposed after the outbreak of mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).
The commission recommended that imports of beef from cattle aged up to 30 months be allowed from the United States, Canada, France and the Netherlands.
Currently, U.S. and Canadian imports are limited to beef from cattle aged up to 20 months, while imports from the other two countries are prohibited.
The commission, under the Cabinet Office, approved the draft plan the health ministry presented at the end of last year.
“The difference in risks between 20 months and 30 months is extremely small, if there is any, and the effects on human health can be ignored,” the commission said in its report.
Beef under the new age limit will probably be imported from early next year after the ministry completes domestic procedures and consultations with exporting countries.
The ministry will report the commission’s recommendations at a subcommittee of the Pharmaceutical Affairs and Food Sanitation Council as early as next month.
It will also discuss conditions for imports, such as control and inspection methods, with exporting countries.
Japan banned U.S. beef imports in 2003 after mad cow disease was confirmed in the country. It resumed imports of U.S. beef only from cattle aged 20 months or younger in 2005.
The United States has been calling for relaxing the age limit. In a meeting with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda in April, U.S. President Barack Obama sought improvements on the issue as a condition for Japan’s participation in negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement.
As for domestic beef, the Food Safety Commission recommended that the age limit for BSE inspections be raised to cattle 31 months old from the current 21 months.
The commission also said specified cattle body parts where abnormal prions, a type of protein believed to cause mad cow disease, tend to accumulate should be removed only from beef from cattle aged 31 months or older.
Currently, all beef is subject to this requirement.
The health ministry will ask for recommendations from an advisory council on draft revisions to ordinances for raising the age limit for BSE inspections and also solicit public opinions.
The commission’s recommendations for easing restrictions came after mad cow disease was largely brought under control around the world.
Only 29 heads of infected cattle were confirmed last year, down sharply from a peak of 37,000 in 1992, after countries took measures against the disease.
For its recommendations, the commission examined feed regulations and slaughtering practices in Japan and the four other countries.
The countries have all banned the use of feed made of meat-and-bone meal, suspected as a source of infections, and also have the specified parts at risk removed.
The commission also reviewed an experiment that showed that abnormal prions were not detected for 42 months, even after cattle were given feed containing BSE-infected brain parts.
The commission said it is not likely that humans can develop variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a degenerative neurological disorder, from consuming cattle aged 30 months or younger.