The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced yesterday that Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack will travel to Japan to promote U.S. exports next month.  

Secretary Vilsack will meet with Japanese Minister of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, Hirotaka Akamatsu, as well as U.S. exporters and Japanese importers while in Japan April 5 to 9, according to a release from the agency.

“We are determined to increase export opportunities for our farmers and ranchers,” said Vilsack. “My mission on this trip will be to continue to push hard to open markets and to bolster an open, rules-based international trading system that will benefit both consumers and our farmers and ranchers, who supply agricultural products around the world.”

The agency’s notice did not mention specifically whether Vilsack will push for lowering trade restrictions on U.S. beef, but at last week’s Commodity Classic in California, Vilsack stated that the Department of Agriculture was “dealing with the previous administration’s approach to Japan–which was a non-starter–which was that they had to reopen the entire market.  And, it’s very apparent they’re not willing to do that.”

Japan banned all U.S. beef in 2003 when a cow with BSE was found in Washington State.  Three years later, the ban was lifted, but strict restrictions were put in place to defend Japan’s meat supply against bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).  Currently, Japan bans shipments of spinal columns, skulls and brain tissue, eyes, and tonsils from cattle and only allows entry of beef from animals that are 20 months old or younger.

U.S. trade officials have argued age restrictions are imposed by Japan without a scientific basis, and should be eliminated or at least raised to the more common 30-month and younger standard that many other nations have in place.

On his Agriculture News Conference Call yesterday, U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) told reporters, “I’m also sending a letter, with Senator Baucus, to the Japanese ambassador urging Japan to base its beef trade policies on science and open its markets to all U.S. beef.  Japan continues to place scientifically unwarranted restrictions on imports of U.S. beef due to alleged concerns about BSE.
“Our letter notes that the World Organisation for Animal Health … determined in 2007 that our beef, derived from cattle of all ages, is safe due to safeguards undertaken by our country, yet Japan still limits imports of U.S. beef to beef from animals age 20 months or younger.

“Since 2004, Japan also has prohibited imports of U.S.-produced gelatin from cows for human consumption.
“Japan’s scientifically unfounded ban on imports of this beef product and the restrictions placed on U.S. beef are negatively impacting Montana and Iowa cattle producers, and it has led to the loss of jobs in Iowa’s gelatin manufacturing center — sector.”

Vilsack is from Iowa, the nation’s second-largest agricultural producing state.  He was governor of Iowa from 1999 to 2007. 

Japan is the United States’ third largest export market with sales of more than $11 billion in FY2009. The top five U.S. agricultural commodities shipped there are coarse grains, red meats, soybeans, feeds and fodders, and processed fruits and vegetables.

On April 8, Vilsack will travel by train to Yamanashi to help commemorate the 50th anniversary of a 1959 ‘hog lift’ when Iowa farmers sent 36 hogs to Yamanashi after Japan suffered major livestock losses caused by two typhoons. Three years later, the original 36 hogs had multiplied to more than 500. Iowa and Yamanashi established a sister-state relationship after the ‘hog lift.’ A delegation from Iowa will accompany Vilsack to Yamanashi.

“The ‘hog lift’ symbolizes the start off a flourishing agricultural relationship,” Vilsack said. “For more than 50 years, U.S. grains and soybeans producers have worked with Japanese importers to develop strong and reliable markets that have benefited producers and consumers alike.”

Vilsack will give the keynote address at a Global Food Security Symposium sponsored by the U.S. Grains Council on April 7 and will meet with students at the University of Tokyo in a Town Hall meeting.  He will also give a speech at the Foreign Correspondents Club on April 9.