Japanese food panel eases mad cow testing rule

WASHINGTON, DC, May 9, 2005 (ENS): The Japanese Food Safety Commission Friday recommended waiving bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) testing for cattle younger than 21 months of age. An animal 21 months of age is the youngest ever to test presumptively positive for the fatal brain wasting disease known as mad cow disease.

The ruling allows the government to approve the resumption of U.S. beef imports. Japan closed its markets to U.S. beef in December 2003 after the United Stated confirmed its first, and only, case of BS. Japan, which has reported 17 cases of BSE, tests all cattle and has insisted that the U.S. also test all of its cattle before it would lift the 17 month old ban on U.S. beef.

Japan's agriculture and health ministries will now review the panel's recommendations. Decisions by Japan’s advisory panels are not legally binding, but the government usually follows their recommendations.

American Meat Institute President and CEO J. Patrick Boyle said today that preventive strategies, rather than testing, are the best assurance that the meat supply is free of the agent that causes BSE.

"A common myth held by both the media and the public is that if cattle test negative for BSE, then they’re free of the infective agent," said Boyle, referring to misshapen proteins known as prions that are believed to cause BSE.

"The reality is that although an animal may test negative for BSE, the agent may still be present in its body. The agent that causes BSE has a long incubation period and thus testing animals before the disease can be detected is a costly exercise that offers no real assurances of safety. Unless an animal is six months or less away from clinical diagnosis, the test will be ineffective in finding the BSE,” Boyle said.

Specified risk materials (SRMs), the parts of the animal that contain the infective agent, like the brain and spinal cord, are by law removed from all animals intended for human consumption. "It’s the removal of the SRMs, and not testing, that ensures food safety," Boyle maintains.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice raised the issue of Japan lifting completely a ban on imports of U.S. beef during a February meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura.

Japan was the largest market for U.S. beef and products with sales in 2003 before the ban was imposed exceeding $1.7 billion. Exports in total account for well over 10 ten percent of the total value of U.S. beef output, according to the the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

A special marketing program will be developed for Japan under which USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service will certify that exported products meet the terms of an agreement that was roughed out by officials of the two countries last October.

The marketing program will be evaluated by the countries in July and modified as appropriate, the USDA said. This evaluation will be based in part on an independent review of the marketing program and the BSE situation conducted by experts from the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and other organizations.

While other countries, such as Egypt, Mexico and South Korea have eased their bans against U.S. beef, the opening of the Japanese market has been seen as pivotal to normalization of U.S. beef exports.

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