TOKYO -- Japan said yesterday that it would resume imports of American beef after reaching an agreement that allows Japanese inspectors into American meatpacking plants, a highly unusual concession by the United States.
The agreement might end a prickly and long-running trade dispute that had blemished the otherwise close relations between Washington and Tokyo, a loyal American ally. It comes a week before Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is due to visit the United States, probably for the last time before his scheduled retirement in September.
Japan was the largest foreign market for American cattle ranchers before December 2003, when it was closed to them after a case of mad-cow disease was found in Washington state. Japan imported $1.4 billion worth of American beef in 2003 before the ban was imposed.
Japan agreed to resume imports in December 2005, only to block them again a few weeks later when backbone parts were found in a shipment from a Brooklyn meatpacker. Spinal chords, brains and the surrounding body parts remained banned under the December 2005 agreement because they are the parts most likely to carry the disease, which is linked to a potentially fatal neural illness in humans.
The new agreement reached yesterday calls for Japan to resume beef imports from the United States on the condition that Japanese officials be allowed to monitor American compliance, a spokesman for Japan's agriculture ministry said. He said the agreement allows Japanese health and agricultural officials to directly inspect meatpacking plants in the United States, and to accompany American officials on their spot inspections.
Thomas Schieffer, the American ambassador to Japan, welcomed the agreement, saying he was "hopeful this is an indication that we're now on the road to resumption" of beef shipments, according to the Associated Press.
The Japanese and American agricultural officials who negotiated the agreement were on opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean, speaking by teleconference; the deal was struck when it was early yesterday morning in Tokyo, but still Tuesday evening in the United States.
Experts have said it is uncommon for countries to accept close and constant oversight of food inspections by officials of another nation.
The agreement may defuse growing irritation on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers were beginning to grumble about the slow pace of negotiations. Before the first agreement to resume beef shipments last year, a group of senators introduced a bill calling for retaliatory tariffs worth $3 billion on Japanese goods.
Many in Japan expressed outrage over the discovery in January of backbone parts in a shipment of veal from Atlantic Veal & Lamb in Brooklyn, saying that the United States was not taking the agreement seriously or enforcing it conscientiously.
The U.S. Agriculture Department said that Atlantic Veal and a government inspector who approved the shipment merely misunderstood the new restrictions.