Late last week Japanese and American negotiators announced an agreement in principle to allow U. S. beef imports to Japan to resume. The imports had been banned since the discovery of mad cow disease in the United States last year. The AP story describing the agreement includes several items the significance of which may not be apparent to those who haven't been following this story.
One item stands out. Japan has had a 100 percent testing policy for all cattle slaughtered since 2001. The American negotiators are trying to get them to drop the testing requirement for cattle under 20 months of age, that is, those cattle that would be allowed in under the agreement. (It is thought that cattle don't develop the disease until after 20 months of age though this has been disputed.) Japanese negotiators say they are taking that proposal back to their superiors and recommending it. (By the way, I don't buy that the Japanese initiated this idea as stated in the article. It may be merely that the Japanese made a counterproposal after the Americans insisted. My evidence for this is that the Japanese are insisting that the Americans put in place a tracking system for individual animals so that their ages can be verified.)
Now, why is ending testing so important to the Americans?
The answer is obvious once you realize that until the mad cow scare last year, the USDA had been testing only about 20,000 cattle per year out of an estimated 35 million slaughtered. After the discovery of mad cow in the U. S., the USDA wanted to appear to take action. Among other things it announced that testing would immediately be doubled. Sounds good, but that means that instead of testing 1 in about 1750 cattle slaughtered, the USDA will now test 1 in 875 or about one-tenth of 1 percent.
By now, you probably know where I'm going. The USDA is scared to death that 100 percent testing by the Japanese will result in the discovery of mad cow in American beef imports and that that would send the U. S. beef industry reeling again. If cattle could talk, we would call the proposal to end testing "Don't ask, don't tell."
So, why are the Japanese caving on this? They haven't quite yet. We'll see what their higher-ups say.
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