Tokyo: Japan has agreed to scrap its universal inspections of US beef in return for sending its own inspectors to US meatpacking plants, the two governments said on 24 April.
The announcement comes two days before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe heads to Washington, where lawmakers from cattle-grazing states are demanding Japan ease restrictions imposed over concerns about mad-cow disease.
Under the agreement, Japan will send inspectors to US meatpacking plants. If their standards are up to par, Japan will accept imports from the plants without checking every shipment.
“The inspections which Japan has been calling for have been accepted. This is big progress because they will confirm safety,” Japan’s agriculture minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka told reporters.
US Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said Japanese inspectors will get to work as soon as possible.
“Once the verification process is complete, Japan will discontinue its requirement of inspecting 100% of the boxes of beef shipped from US plants,” Johanns said in a statement.
He called the agreement “important first steps in our effort to expand US beef trade with Japan”.
Beef in recent years has turned into a major sore point between the close political allies.
Japan, formerly the top overseas market for US beef, has halted imports twice since 2003 due to scares over bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), the brain-wasting condition commonly known as mad cow disease.
Faced with threats of sanctions, Japan in July agreed to resume US beef imports on condition the cattle were 20 months old or younger at the time of slaughter, with brains, spinal cords and other risky parts removed.
Japan has steadfastly rejected US calls to lower the age. It has also suspended imports from three meatpacking plants for violating safety rules.
Despite the resumption of US beef imports, consumption in Japan remains far below previous levels after years of bad publicity.
The US has also lobbied for other Asian nations to reopen to their markets to US beef. South Korea on Monday resumed US beef imports after sealing a landmark free-trade pact with Washington.