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Published April 05, 2010, 09:53 AM

Vilsack hopes to open beef talks in Japan

WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who is traveling to Japan April 5 to 9 to Japan, says he hopes to make progress on expanding beef exports to Japan by listening to the Japanese more than Bush administration negotiators did.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who is traveling to Japan April 5 to 9 to Japan, says he hopes to make progress on expanding beef exports to Japan by listening to the Japanese more than Bush administration negotiators did.

At a March 31 news conference, Vilsack said when Japan banned U.S. beef after the discovery of mad cow disease in this country in December 2003, the Bush administration negotiators “did not initially want to listen” to any proposals to ban beef from animals younger than 30 months. Eventually, Vilsack noted, the Bush administration agreed that U.S. beef exports to Japan would come from animals 20 months of age or younger.

Vilsack is expected to tell the Japanese that beef from older U.S. animals is safe and that they should accept it, but he said, “This is an opportunity to listen intently. We need to meet mutual needs but in a proper way.”

Noting that he traveled to Japan three times when he was governor of Iowa, Vilsack said, “Friends figure out a way” to reach agreements and he thinks U.S. and Japanese negotiators can find a “pathway” for Japan to comply with World Organization for Animal Health standards on the beef trade, which call for countries to allow almost all imports of beef from countries such as the United States that have been given “controlled risk” status for putting in place measures to control the disease.

Vilsack said he hopes to use the relationships he made on his previous trips to Japan to develop “a new framework” for conversations with the new Japanese government on beef.

“I am confident I can make the case this is a product that’s safe and of high quality,” Vilsack said. “I have no illusions about how difficult (liberalizing the market) is, but I hope we can go forward.”

Under pressure

Japan and the Obama administration are under congressional pressure to liberalize the Japanese beef market. On March 11, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., and a bipartisan group of 17 other senators introduced a resolution calling on Japan to lift its partial ban on U.S. beef. Lincoln noted that the Japanese market for U.S. beef was $1.4 billion per year before the ban and has averaged only $196 million per year from 2004 to 2009. “Asia continues to hold the greatest growth potential in market access for American beef exports and these non-tariff trade barriers from Japan must be brought down,” Lincoln said in a joint news release with Johanns.

“For too long, Japan has been grossly unfair in its treatment of U.S. beef and beef producers for reasons that defy scientific rationalization, even as the U.S. goes out of its way to treat Japanese products fairly,” Johanns added.

Vilsack also said that he will give a keynote address in Tokyo at a Global Food Security Symposium sponsored by the U.S. Grains Council, which promotes feed grain exports, meet with students at the University of Tokyo in a town hall meeting and speak at the Tokyo Foreign Correspondents Club. Vilsack also will travel to the Japanese province of Yamanashi to commemorate a 1959 “hog lift” when Iowa farmers sent 36 hogs there after Japan suffered major livestock losses because of a typhoon.

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