New Japan Mad Cow Fear

May 13, 2002 The Age (Melbourne) by Shane Green
Tokyo -- A fourth case of mad cow disease has been found in Japan, creating a further setback to the Australian beef industry's hopes of salvaging its lucrative Japanese market.

Australian beef is free from the brain-wasting disease, but the outbreak in Japan's domestic herd has led to beef consumption dropping by about half.

Despite Australia heavily promoting the safety of its beef, sales have struggled since the first case of mad cow disease in Japan last September. The Japanese market was worth about $1.7 billion a year before the outbreak of what was the first identified case in Asia. In the months following, exports dropped by half and have stayed there since.

It had been five months since a case of the disease had been detected in Japan, raising hopes that the beef market might begin to rebound.

Testing was introduced at slaughter, and many abattoirs had dramatically cut back on the number of cows being killed.

The latest case of the disease, scientifically known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, was on an infected cow discovered on Saturday on the northern island of Hokkaido. The cow was born in 1996, the same year as the three cows previously found to be infected with the disease. A health ministry panel will meet today to confirm the infection of the cow, but the case does not seem to be in any doubt, with extra tests already carried out.

After confirmation by the panel, the carcass of the animal will be incinerated.

Apart from mad cow disease, the confidence of Japanese consumers has also been eroded by a beef scandal involving the Snow Brand Food Company.

The company was discovered to have relabelled Australian and American beef as domestic beef to capitalise on a government buyback scheme set up to deal with the mad cow crisis.

Last week, police arrested five former executives from the company on suspicion of fraud, and more arrests are expected.

The handling of the mad cow crisis by Japan's Ministry of Agriculture has also been under fire.

A recent report on the ministry's handling of the problem revealed that in 1996, when the World Health Organisation told the Japanese Government to ban meat and bone meal feed, the ministry reacted by issuing only guidelines. The report found that the ministry lacked a sense of crisis and had demonstrated incompetence.

There is deep concern in Australia about the impact on local beef producers, with the Australian and state governments attempting to persuade Japanese consumers about the safety of the Australian product.

In January, Agriculture Minister Warren Truss visited Japan with the message "Eat Australian, eat safely". Last week a Tasmanian Government delegation visited Japan, and Queensland this week scheduled promotions in Japan based around the safety of beef.

At one stage, the Japanese supermarket chain Jusco enlisted the services of Australia's ambassador to Japan, John McCarthy, for a television advertisement. One of the biggest retail losers from the outbreak has been McDonald's, which uses only Australian beef in Japan. It also ran a campaign to reassure consumers.

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