Mon Jan 23rd, 2006 at 01:35:16 PM EST
Two years ago, Japan imposed a blanket ban on US beef imports after mad cow disease was first discovered in a US infected cow in Washington state in 2003.
Only a month after resuming beef imports from the United States, Japanese insecptor found a banned cattle part that is believed to be a risk of mad cow disease. One condition for lifting the import ban was that all Japanese risky animal parts, such as the spinal column that was found, were to be excluded from imported beef.
On now Japan announced the closing of its border to U.S. beef imports, again. One would think, after the two year ban, inspections would be made very carefully. But that was not the case.
A Brooklyn exporter, Atlantic Veal & Lamb, happened to pack spinal cords in the shipment of beef but part of this blunder falls on the U.S. because an inspector from the Agriculture Department had approved the shipment.
Philip Peerless, president of Atlantic Veal and Lamb, released in a public statement apologizing for shipping unapproved beef:
We sincerely regret that we shipped product not approved for export to Japan. Our company shipped this product in response to an order by a Japanese customer.
But the statement went further from just an apology for it's error, but Peerless, questioned Japan's concern for the safety of beef since the product is "widely consumed in the U.S." Peerless, also wanted to let the Japanese know that the people of San Francisco would have blindly eaten their product because they would have never questioned the "safety" of the beef. So Peerless decided to blame the Japanese for the company's punishment handed down from the USDA.
The product we shipped is safe and is widely consumed in the U.S. marketplace. Were this product shipped to San Francisco, there would be no question about its safety. But because we shipped it to Japan, and because it contained bones that are not accepted by the Japanese, we have now been prohibited from exporting to Japan.
So now U.S. Officials
are trying to control the damage the incident could cause to the beef industry's export market.
"This is an unacceptable failure on our part to meet the requirements of our agreement with this trading partner, the country of Japan," Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns told reporters. "We are taking this matter very seriously, recognizing the importance of our beef export markets. And we are acting swiftly and firmly."
Right after Japan made their announcement, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns sent additional inspectors to Japan, revoked Atlantic Veal & Lamb's export license to Japan, ordered unannounced checks, and promised to take "appropriate personnel action" against the inspector.
"It's a situation where very, very clearly our inspectors should have caught this," Johanns said. "And I'm going to do everything I can to make sure that that doesn't happen again."
However, this is not just a little mistake, but this could lead to long term effects to both Texas and Kansas, the number one and two in nation in cattle production. Before the bans, Japan was the top (37%) overseas market for U.S. beef, South Korea (21%) is the No. 3 market behind Mexico (24%).
But this incident comes at the worse time because beef exporters were just about to rebuild the overseas beef market because Japan was not the only country to place a tempoary ban. Other countries included were Mexico, Australia, Russia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore. The decline began when a discovery was made of a diseased cow in Washington state in 2003.
There are others who take the same view as
Philip Peerless, who feels Japan's policy is being unfair to the U.S. cattle industry. Jake Cummins, executive director of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, went so far to call Japan's decision "a draconian step."
However, not everybody would agree with Peerless or Cummins.There are some U.S. producers who were angry with the meatpacking plant that committed the error.
Don Hineman, a beef producer from Dighton, Kan., told AP:
"I'm angry, and disappointed too."
"Some harm has been done, and I fear getting the borders back open may be a lengthy process again," Hineman said. "We are going to have to regain their trust and that is going to take time, unfortunately."
The decision will create a "negative tone" in the market, indirectly affecting anyone raising beef.
Bruce Berven, vice president of marketing for Harris Ranch - the first company to send a shipment of U.S. beef to Japan said:
"You get geared up for that, and then to find out that the market is temporarily taken away because someone from New York state with a small shipment messed up _ well, it's disheartening, frustrating and maddening,"
Cattle owner Brant Crowder of Sale Creek, TN was disappointment at the person "not paying attention."
Now this kind of just knocks you in the face," said Crowder, who owns about 75 head of cattle. "Who knows how long it will be? It was two years. Now you've got an incident done by somebody who was not paying attention to what they were doing.
The corrective measures were announced by Secretary Mike Johanns for immediate action:
- Send additional inspectors to every beef export plant to review procedures and ensure compliance with export rules.
- Require that two USDA inspectors review every shipment of U.S. beef for export to confirm compliance.
- Stage surprise inspections at every U.S. plant approved for beef export.
- Meet with U.S. beef industry representatives to review compliance with export rules for Japan.
But the question that really needs to be explored- How could the USDA inspectors not catch this mistake? According to Joseph Mendelson, Center for Food Safety's legal director, blames the incompetence that continues to pleague the USDA for not doing enough to guard against mad cow disease. Mendelson said:
"If they just did their job domestically, then we wouldn't have the problem."
Echoing Mendelson's sentaments is Kathleen Kelley, a rancher a rancher from Meeker, CO, and a member of R-CALF Stockgrowers of America
who also believes the Agriculture Department is inadequate. Kelley told the Houston Chronicle
We've said for a long time that we have to live by high standards, that it's our future," Kelley said. "We can't continue down this path or we're not going to have an industry.
It should be noted not all the blame should be placed on Secretary Mike Johanns. Mike Johanns, replaced Ann Veneman
, who was the first woman to hold the post of Agriculture Secretary and who is now the Executive Director of UNICEF.
While Ann Veneman Agriculture Secretary, like all agencies under the Bush administration, the USDA is run by U.S. food and trade industry. Interestingly, Charles Lambert, USDA's Deputy Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs used to work for the National Cattleman's Association, the trade group for beef industry, which also includes beef packing distribution.
It just so happens that one day before Japan made their announcement, Inspector General Phyllis Fong released her findings in the latest Department of Agriculture audit:
A department audit found that employees who are supposed to investigate unfair or anticompetitive behavior were pressured to create the appearance of strong enforcement by logging routine letters as investigations. At the same time, senior officials were stopping complaints from being filed or prosecuted
Inspector General Fong
also cited that the Packers and Stockyards Program's "tracking system could not be relied upon, competition and complex investigations were not being performed and timely action was not being taken." According to the report, the program did not have any formal definition for what constituted an investigation. Which resulted employees defined full-fledged investigations as routine correspondence to companies and using public data to track the companies.
The report noted, JoAnn Waterfield, the deputy administrator, would reprimand regional offices for logging too few investigations and then have them make up their deficiency by logging activities that previously had not been counted. The report also noted, Waterfield required her managers to "perform their functions in more of a 'big picture' view and to evaluate the repercussions that their decisions have on the agency and the livestock and poultry industries."
Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns response to the audit was that he didn't know why senior officials blocked investigations of stockyards and meat companies. Johanns replying to Waterfield sudden departure:
"But she has left, and that gives us the opportunity to declare a new day and fix the problems."
It looks like the mess haunted him sooner than he would have hoped. If the beef industry is running the USDA and how food is packed and shipped, should the American public or those who who import American beef worry what they eat? And what about Atlantic Veal & Lamb, they only received a slap on the hand by only revoking their license to export to Japan, but - Is this Atlantic Veal & Lamb's first mistake or are there more?
It seems that the only time the mighty beef industry were shaking in their boots was the time Ophra Winfrey took them on.