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Economy

Japan scraps mad cow import restrictions on US beef

Ban removal boosts access for American ranchers but trade hurdles remain

Japan has lifted all age restrictions on imports of beef from the U.S., Canada and Ireland,.    © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japan abolished Friday all age restrictions on imported U.S. beef that had been imposed to combat the affliction known as mad cow disease.

To prevent a domestic outbreak of the disease formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, Japan had banned beef imports from cattle older than 30 months. Similar restrictions were also lifted on imports from Canada and Ireland.

The move comes as Japan is in trade talks with the U.S. Last month, during a visit to Washington by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, U.S. President Donald Trump stressed his desire to have more American farm products in the Japanese market.

The U.S. Meat Export Federation said lifting the restrictions will increase Japan's U.S. beef imports by 7% to 10% or an annual $150 million to $200 million.

Having signed a series of trade deals including the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the pact with the European Union, Japan is incrementally lowering tariffs on beef imports. But because the U.S. left the TPP, tariffs on its exports to Japan will remain stuck at high levels. Concerns among American ranchers that their products are becoming less competitive are growing.

"U.S. beef needs to be on a level playing field in Japan," the U.S. federation said, adding it was "anxious to see progress in the U.S.-Japan trade negotiations."

Tokyo first banned all U.S. beef imports in 2003, and then relaxed it to allow the import of cows 20 months or younger in 2005, and then raised the cutoff to 30 months in 2013.

In January, Japan’s Food Safety Commission concluded that the beef posed a negligible risk to human health and local surveys confirmed it was safe to end the restrictions.

According to the farm ministry, most beef imports from the U.S. come from cows younger than 24 months. The end of restrictions is expected to have minimal effect on meat processed into conventional cuts, such as those for steaks and burgers.

But considering the demand in Japan for organ meat -- such as tripe and tongue -- from older cows, imports for such fare may be boosted. With a low supply of organ meat in Japan, little effect on domestic producers is expected.

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