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January 21, 2006
Japan again bans U.S. beef after backbone gets into shipment

Just 5 1/2 weeks after lifting its ban on U.S. beef, Japan slammed the door shut again Friday, saying a recent shipment contained material it considered at risk for mad cow disease.

''This is a pity given that imports had just resumed,'' Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told reporters. ''I received the agriculture minister's report over the telephone with his recommendation that the imports be halted and I think it is a good idea.''

The Japanese government plans to halt the imports until it receives a report from the U.S. government on how the risky material got into the shipment, an Agriculture Ministry statement said.

The statement said ministry inspectors found material from cattle backbone in three out of 41 boxes in an 858-pound shipment of beef from Atlantic Veal & Lamb. All of the beef in the shipment was destroyed, the statement said.

In Washington, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said the U.S. government is investigating the shipment and investigators are being dispatched to Japan. He also said the plant that exported the meat in question is now barred from shipping more beef to Japan and the government inspector who cleared the shipment may be disciplined. Extra inspectors are also being sent to every plant that exports meat to Japan and unannounced inspections have been ordered, Johanns said.

''We take this matter very seriously,'' the secretary said in a statement. ''We are in communication with Japanese officials and we will continue . . . to assure them that we take this matter very seriously and we are acting swiftly and firmly.''

Japan, the most lucrative overseas market for U.S. beef, originally had imposed the ban in December 2003 after the discovery of the first case of mad cow disease in the U.S.

Less than six weeks ago, on Dec. 12, 2005, it agreed to allow a resumption of imports, but only from cows aged 20 months or younger, which are believed unlikely to have the disease. The deal also excluded spines, brains, bone marrow and other parts of cattle thought to be at particularly high risk of containing the disease. Before the ban that ended in December, the Japanese market for American beef was worth some $1.4 billion in 2003. After the ban was lifted, U.S. beef began making a limited return to local supermarket shelves and restaurant menus.

However, most major supermarket chains have been taking a wait-and-see approach.

Furthermore, Japanese consumers - who have been particularly sensitive to safety concerns - still seem to be wary of American beef. A Kyodo News survey last month showed about 75 percent of Japanese are unwilling to eat U.S. beef because of mad cow fears, compared with 21 percent saying they would consume it.

The import statistics seem to reflect this caution. Japan imported a total of 745 tons of beef from the U.S. in the first month after the ban was partially lifted, less than 4 percent of what it imported before the ban, Kyodo said last week.

Source : جربدة الوفد