According to Japanese media reports, the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries ministry issued a report on Monday stating there are no assurances that more cases of mad cow disease will not be discovered in the United States.
"There is no guarantee that mad cow disease will not occur in the US from now," the report says, based on the findings of a team of Japanese experts who returned home Sunday after visiting North America following the discovery last month of a Canadian-born cow in Washington state infected with mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).
As a result of its 11-day visit to North America, the team found there are chances that the same type of meat-and-bone meal used to feed the Holstein in Canada had been imported to the US, it says. Citing the closely integrated beef-related industries between the US and Canada.
The media reports write that when asked whether US beef is safe, a ministry official said : "Compared with the measures Japan is taking, the US measures are fairly weak and inadequate in terms of safety level. As far as this investigation is concerned, nothing but MBM can be considered as a source of BSE infection," he said.
Japan devised thorough safety measures after mad cow disease was confirmed in domestic cattle in September 2001. Sales of beef in Japan have only just recovered following events in 2001, when consumption plummeted, inflicting $2bn in losses on US, Australian and other beef exporters.
Japanese authorities introduced mandatory BSE testing for all domestic cattle bound for consumption, making Japan the only country to inspect all of its cows, regardless of age. But the checks are not conducted on imported beef.
Japan was one of more than 20 countries to impose the ban on US beef after a four-year-old Holstein cow in Washington state tested positive for BSE in December last year.
Japan, which bought more than $1bn worth of US beef last year, is the world's largest importer of the product. Together with South Korea and Mexico they accounted for 89 per cent of US beef imports.
Japan has also suspended imports from Canada after the discovery of a cow with BSE in May last year.
US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Undersecretary J.B. Penn is heading up a delegation that arrived in Japan yesterday to explain new US safeguards so that trade can resume. On the same mission, he will also travel to the Philippines, Hong Kong and South Korea.
Meanwhile, the New Zealand press reports that a delegation of Japanese officials - looking for alternative beef sources - arrived in the country last week to discuss increasing New Zealand beef exports to Japan. The Asian country imported 11,000 tonnes of beef and veal from New Zealand last year.