WASHINGTON — U.S. Department of Agriculture officials on Wednesday continued to defend their campaign against the spread of "mad cow" disease -- even as some meat producers worried that newly imposed safety measures did not go far enough to appease foreign buyers.
"I think the export market will dictate to us to do more," said Ken Conway, who heads GeneNet, an alliance of beef producers. "We're going to have to make some compromises to make them happy."
Since a Holstein from a Washington state farm tested positive for "mad cow" disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, on Dec. 23, at least 36 countries -- representing 90% of U.S. overseas sales -- have closed their borders to American beef. Getting those bans lifted is critical because there are 1,800 to 2,000 containers of American beef and beef products valued at more than $200 million either stranded in foreign ports or at sea, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation.
U.S. officials hope consumers and foreign governments will be reassured by this week's announcement of more stringent meat safety regulations, including the creation of a national identification system for tracking cattle and the banning of so-called downer animals -- those too injured or ill to walk -- from the food supply. Carcasses in the process of being tested for "mad cow" disease will now be held in coolers until results confirm whether they are disease free.
"The system that we had in place, plus the additional safeguards that were announced, should continue to satisfy consumers in the U.S. that we have a very safe meat supply," Dr. W. Ron DeHaven, the USDA's chief veterinarian, said in a news conference Wednesday.
But Japan, the first nation to cut off U.S. imports after the discovery of the diseased cow, rebuffed appeals this week from visiting American officials to resume its imports, which total about $1 billion a year. Japan agreed, however, to send a team of agriculture and health experts to the United States next week to review the new meat safety program, visit processing plants and make a trip to Washington state, U.S. officials said.
Getting the green light from Japan, America's leading export market, would send a strong message to South Korea and other governments about the safety of U.S. beef, according to industry officials. But they acknowledge that it is likely to be months, perhaps even years, before the U.S. beef export market returns to normal.
"It's going to take time for us to reestablish their trust," said Lloyd Manning, president of E.B. Manning & Son Inc., a small Pico Rivera beef packing company.
U.S. beef producers face an uphill battle in persuading Japan to reopen its borders. Historically, Japanese consumers have shown a fierce loyalty to domestic beef, arguing that it is tastier and safer than foreign products. Japan's small but powerful domestic beef industry has capitalized on those sentiments, lobbying to keep imported beef off store shelves.
"The Japanese consumer is very, very cautious and very emotional about these types of food safety matters," said Bruce Berven, a spokesman for Harris Ranch Beef Co., California's leading beef processor and exporter.
"Couple that with a Japanese beef industry that wishes it had less competition and you have a groundswell within the country of 'let's not import U.S.' "
It took more than a decade of pressure from the U.S. government before Japan reluctantly agreed to open its market to foreign beef in the 1980s. Since then, the U.S. beef industry has spent tens of millions of dollars marketing its products in Japan, hiring celebrities to pitch prime rib and touting American beef recipes at cooking schools and restaurants. Those efforts have paid off. Until the recent scare, U.S. products accounted for 38% of beef consumed by the Japanese.
Japanese government officials are struggling to restore confidence in the safety of their own food supply after a series of health scares and scandals in recent years. Beef consumption in Japan cratered after the discovery of a cow infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, in September 2001.
Since then, Japan has required the testing of all cattle slaughtered from its herds. It has found nine cases of BSE, according to the USDA. Two of those positive tests were in animals younger than 30 months. That was significant, because the cattle industry had thought that animals under that age were unlikely to be infected.
More rigorous testing is under consideration in the U.S., but producers note that with 36 million cattle slaughtered annually, testing every animal may not be economically viable.
"The Japanese understand that it is unfeasible to test every animal," said Richard Fritz, vice president for trade development at the Denver-based Meat Export Federation. "The U.S. system is so large."
Katsunori Hashimoto, a Los Angeles-based meat broker, said the Japanese government faces strong political pressure to keep foreign imports out of the market as long as possible.