There is good news for the American beef export industry. Japan announced Friday that the country has decided to resume talks this September about potentially re-opening the Japanese market for U.S. beef exports. These talks have been stalled since the summer of 2007.

Japan originally banned American beef in 2003 after a Washington state cow was found to harbor bovine spongiform encephalopathy, more commonly known as mad cow disease. In 2006 Japan slightly eased up on imports, allowing beef from cows under 21 months of age into the country.  The disease has not been detected in cows 21 months or younger.  The Japanese also require that the brains, vertebrate, spinal cord, and bone marrow be properly removed before export.

Before 2003 Japan was the largest importer of U.S. beef, consuming an estimated $1.2 billion worth of U.S. beef yearly.  When beef began pouring back into Japan in 2006 it was met with mixed reactions from consumers. A poll in early December by Kyodo News reported that 75.2 percent of respondents refused to eat American beef.

t-bone-steak-featured.jpgOver the past four years the Japanese have eased up on their fear of American beef. Currently the United States exports about $496 million worth of beef a year.  This is less than half of the export market U.S. beef used to hold.  Today, Japan imports beef from many other countries, including Australia and China.

The ban has continued because of the discrepancy in U.S. and Japanese food safety standards. The Japanese government wants the U.S. to check each individual carcass for mad cow disease, which is a precaution U.S. beef producers find unnecessary and expensive.

Though many Japanese consumers refused to eat American beef in 2006, popular opinion may have changed to support the higher rates of imports the September talks are expected to bring.

In 2006 the New York Times reported the comments of Shigemi Oishi, the owner of 110 restaurants in Japan that began serving U.S. beef after the ban was lifted. He explained his customers’ wariness, “Once they try it, they realize it’s really the best type of beef for grilling like this.” Oishi traveled to Denver to inspect a slaughterhouse for himself, and deemed it safe enough to serve. “The United States has to do more to let Japan know that its meat is safe,” he said. “It can’t just rely on restaurants like us.”

Over the past four years popularity has been slowly growing. The USDA reports that in 2003 over $1.18 billion worth of beef were exported to Japan. In 2004 this number drastically fell to $31 million. In 2005 it rose to $50 million, then doubled to $105 million in 2006. After the ban was lifted for young cattle, exports rose to $294 million in 2007, $239 million in 2008 and $496 million in 2009. This number is still low compared to levels before the mad cow scare in 2003.

South Korea has traditionally followed Japan’s lead in bans, and U.S. exports still sit at around one-fifth of the rates from before the 2003 mad cow disease scare in Korea.These rates may all experience a quick rise if the presumed talks proceed as beef industry advocates hope. 

Japanese Farm Minister Masahiko Yamada announced the upcoming talks this past Friday.