Mount Fuji

Our beef with Japan


(This article first appeared on July 17, 2003, in The Globe and Mail, Toronto)

Why has Japan refused to end its ban on Canadian beef? Food safety is the standard response — but, like everything with Japan, there is more to this issue. With one case of mad cow disease, Canadians have inadvertently wandered into the peculiar world of Japanese domestic politics. They have also become the foil for Japan again to restrict U.S. beef exports to Japan, the largest market for American beef. To overcome this situation, Canadians need to employ hard-nosed political tactics with both Washington and Tokyo.

Yes, food safety is an important concern to Japan’s leaders. The issue, however, is actually one of trust in government. Since Japan’s first case of mad cow disease was announced in September, 2001, the government has been exposed as pursuing a policy of cover-up to hide incompetence, arrogance, and an inadequate food-inspection system.

When the European Union warned Japan in June, 2001, that there was a good possibility of mad cow disease in Japan, the Japanese rejected the report and squashed its publication. In September, 2001, when a case of mad cow was confirmed on a farm near Tokyo, the Japanese ministry of agriculture assured the public that the infected cow had been incinerated.

In fact, it was soon discovered, the cow had been slaughtered and used for feed. Japan’s entire food-safety regime was quickly under attack for being both ineffective and antiquated. There have been seven cases of mad cow disease in Japan, two this year alone.

Yet, consumer issues are secondary to the larger question of election politics in Japan. For Japan’s dominant political party, the Liberal Democratic Party, the issue is one of votes from its most important constituency, which consists of rural voters. Currently locked into a fragile ruling coalition, the LDP is determined to regain its majority status. In September, the LDP will hold its presidential election. This election usually determines who will be prime minister as well as who will lead the party into the parliamentary elections that must be held before July 2004.

In lining up votes, the LDP candidates are hoping that foreign beef certification will help both Japan’s farmers (by keeping out cheap foreign beef) and Japan’s consumers (by demonstrating concern about food safety). Beef certification, however, must have been a fortunate afterthought by politicians hoping to appease Japan’s rural voters. The initial effort was to curb dramatically beef imports by activating a World Trade Organization "safeguard clause." Under WTO rules, Japan can increase the beef tariff from 38.5 per cent to 50 per cent if there is a year-on-year increase of more than 17 per cent in imported beef on a cumulative quarterly basis.

Beef imports, which had dropped dramatically in 2002 from Japan’s own mad cow scare, are just now creeping back up. Japan’s ministry of agriculture wants to use 2002 imports as a baseline (not 2001 or 2000, when imports were more stable) and wants to impose the safeguards this summer. To North Americans, this looks like protectionism. Indeed, the U.S. trade representative has called this move "inappropriate" and says this safeguard is a right and not a rule, "and as such . . . Japan can choose not to exercise it." But why isn’t the Bush administration even more concerned about Japan’s effort to limit beef imports? After all, Canadian beef safety measures are far stricter than those in Japan or the U.S., and cattle are usually slaughtered young, before bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) can set in.

More important, cattle experts know that the Canadian and U.S. herds are closely integrated. It is near impossible to separate out what is "Canadian" from U.S. beef. In the end, U.S. beef will either become more expensive, compounding the effect of the promised "safeguard" tariff, or be included in the ban on Canadian beef.

In fact, the Bush administration’s support of the Japanese position, though ill-advised, is understandable. It’s a thank you to Japan for supporting the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a thank you to the LDP for pushing through legislation to that changed significantly Japan’s pacifist security policy to support U.S. operations abroad. Conveniently, it also is a snub to Canada, which did not condone the U.S. war with Iraq.

But this foreign-policy focused, White House-controlled policy ignores how the U.S. beef producers will be affected by rising prices, unnecessary procedures, and import restrictions.

Tokyo is pushing the issue of beef certification simply because it can. The issue gives the Japanese consumers comfort that the government is looking after their welfare while it also aids the inefficient, albeit politically powerful, Japanese farmers. Food safety is a better excuse to limit beef imports than a controversial WTO regulation. The LDP is simply using food safety for limited domestic political gain, to the detriment of, among others, Canadian farmers and the U.S.-Canada relationship. In sum, Canadians are being made responsible for the ineptitude of Japan’s bureaucrats. But Canada’s beef industry cannot wait till Japan’s elections for this issue to go away. To overcome the many obstacles presented by Japan, Canadians should take action on several fronts.

First, Canada should work closely with U.S. beef producers to make the case for their industry to the White House. Secondly, Canada should initiate a public campaign in Japan outlining the sophistication of Canada’s food safety regime compared with that of Japan. Third, senior Canadian health officials should meet immediately with Japan’s new Food Safety Council. And if it’s necessary to play hardball, Canada should hold up or veto Japanese proposals in international organizations, and should begin rigorous safety inspections of Japanese plants in Canada.

Last week, Japanese agriculture minister Yoshiyuki Kamei repeatedly said that his government is just beginning to "restore public trust" in its food system. But this strategy is at the expense of Canadian and American ranchers. This is unacceptable. Japan’s leaders must learn also to be accountable to an international public trust.

Mindy Kotler is the director of the Japan Information Access Project,
a non-profit research center, based in Washington. 
Mindy Kotler
Japan Information Access Project
2000 P Street, NW, Suite 620
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 822-6040, 
fax (202) 822-6044


Editor's diary notes: 

Shortly after publication of Mindy Kotler's above article in July 2003, Japan suspended all beef imports from the U.S. following one single case of mad cow disease in the state of Washington. In an apparent effort to impress voters at home, the Japanese government set mandatory testing of every single head of U.S. cattle for CJD as a precondition for any lifting of the ban.

Tokyo repeatedly cited concerns over public health and welfare as the sole reason for its ban on North American beef. The contrast with its leniency toward the multi-billion dollar tobacco industry, or for that matter the fugu (blow-fish) or dolphin-meat industries, could hardly be starker. The government maintains a majority stake in Japan Tobacco, a by international standards very low tax on cigarettes, and has been derelict in its duty to promote proper public awareness of the dangers of smoking or passive smoking. One sees more clearly than ever how opportunistically it changes its tune depending on which well-heeled interest group it happens to be pandering to — the farming lobby, the tobacco lobby, or other vested interests.

Japan's ban on U.S. beef lifted while mad cow persists at home

On Monday, December 12th, 2005, the date of the final lifting of the ban on American beef imports to Japan, a short Kyodo news release documenting Japan's 21st case of mad cow disease was hidden away at the bottom of page 3 of the International Herald Tribune. Contrast this with the fact that there have so far been just two reported cases of mad cow in the U.S., where per capita beef consumption is far, far higher than that in Japan, and where, to my knowledge, no one has come to harm from eating U.S. beef — including significant numbers of Japanese tourists.

With regard to the assertion on BBC World's "Asia Business Report" of Dec. 22 that 75% of Japanese are still wary of U.S. beef, I'd just like to say: "Don't you believe it!". One must always bear in mind that those polled for Japanese opinion surveys (generally fewer than 2,000 in a nation of 127 million) are frequently influenced by leading questions and by what they think is expected of them as "good citizens". The past two years have seen a relentless campaign on the part of Japanese media to cast doubt on the safety of American beef. Meanwhile, continuing cases of mad cow disease right here in Japan have either been withheld from the public or deliberately played down so as not to embarrass local producers and news editors with a patriotic agenda.

What one observer interviewed for the BBC report referred to as "byzantine" screening procedures for American beef as a precondition for renewed imports are actually a win-win face-saving solution for the Japanese government. As Mindy Kotler pointed out, they make it look tough on the home front at zero expense to itself, while further narrowing the price differential between domestic and imported beef for Japanese consumers.

Japan was hit by mad cow disease in the first place partly because it previously ignored EU safety recommendations. Instead of newspapers and television news here adopting a little of that much-touted Japanese humility, they would now have us all believe the nation's food hygiene standards are somehow superior to those of other advanced nations. And pressed for time, or simply too gullible, some foreign reporters are taking exactly what they hear at face value.

Friday, January 20th, 2006, and it's back to square one!

Poor supervision and shoddy inspection on the U.S. side has reportedly allowed the inclusion of outlawed spinal parts in one beef shipment destined for the newly opened Japanese market. This has provided those in government who were never happy with opening up the market in the first place (but did so to avert looming retaliatory sanctions) with the very excuse they've been hankering for to slam on the brakes.

Although, to my knowledge, only one single meat packer in Brooklyn was at fault, the incident has been seized upon as an excuse sent from heaven to suspend all further imports, even those in full compliance with new Japanese regulations. Immediately the official propaganda machine swung into action with its customary introspective reporting. Public broadcaster NHK has been acting more like Chinese state television CCTV and one realizes how little this official mouthpiece has changed since World War II. Whipping up near hysteria and adding insult to injury they lost no time in reporting that supermarkets across the nation were pulling existing stocks of U.S. meat off their shelves and would not be trusting in it any time soon. The notion that the Japanese government might have over-reacted is not even touched upon, nor the fact that only recently the Japanese themselves were ignoring EU warnings and processing beef in precisely the same manner as the U.S.

Meanwhile, silence prevails on the spiraling cases of mad cow disease right here in Japan. In my view it's all about protecting the interests of domestic beef producers to as great an extent as they can possibly get away with. If food safety indeed were the overriding concern for Japanese authorities, then they would surely do something about methyl mercury-tainted dolphin meat sold without warning labels in Shizuoka supermarkets.

Thursday, February 9th, 2006, and yet more cases of "mad cow" in Japan's own backyard

Addressing a largely non-Japanese readership, the Japan Times of the February 10th reported the nation's 22nd confirmed case of mad cow disease on its front page. Officials were quoted as saying that an additional forty-five cows on the same dairy farm in Betsukai, Hokkaido, are to be destroyed as they are also suspected of having BSE.

One would have thought that this alarming piece of news would have merited at least as much attention as the largely hypothetical threat from U.S. beef. But no, it was not to be. Major media companies with their vested interests and a long tradition of self-censorship continue to downplay, explain away, or avoid reporting any developments with the potential to undermine consumer confidence in the domestic beef industry.

Saturday, May 13th, 2006

The Mainichi Daily News republished (as usual without comment) a report from the Kyodo news agency entitled "Japan confirms 26th mad cow disease case". This article was typical in that reassurances from Japanese authorities were taken at face value and the readers diverted to doubts about U.S. beef at the earliest opportunity.

Thursday, July 27th, 2006

Japan today announced the resumption of American beef imports for the second time in seven months after securing even tighter monitoring of U.S. packing facilities. The two sides still do not see eye to eye over what to do if further problems arise. The U.S. wants any fallout to be limited to the suspension of offending meat packers, while Japan is threatening to once again suspend ALL imports and punish even those suppliers in compliance with the rules. One can clearly see which side is being the more reasonable given the enormous costs, not to mention immorality, involved in discarding vast quantities of food that is perfectly safe to eat.

David V. Appleyard