Biggest importers ban American beef

By Mark Stevenson
Associated Press / December 25, 2003

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MEXICO CITY -- The biggest markets for US beef around the world slammed shut yesterday amid fears about a suspected case of mad cow disease in the United States, as Mexico, Japan, and South Korea closed their borders to American beef.

The three largest importers of US beef were among more than a dozen countries that halted imports -- the source of billions of dollars of sales for US cattlemen.

Some stressed that their bans were temporary, until the extent and scope of any infection is confirmed.

Others, like Taiwan and Singapore, said that if the outbreak is confirmed, they would ban US beef for six to seven years, given the long incubation period for the disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE.

Canada announced a limited ban, halting imports of some processed beef products but allowing dairy products, live cattle, and boneless beef from cattle 30 months of age or younger at slaughter.

Canadian cattlemen know all too well the devastation even one mad cow case can cause. In May, an isolated mad cow case was found in northwestern Alberta, prompting the United States and other countries to ban Canadian beef. Half a year later, the United States partially lifted its restrictions, but the borders of other countries remain shut.

Since BSE was first identified in 1986 in Britain, cases of the disease have been reported from Europe to Asia, prompting massive destruction of herds and devastating the European beef industry.

Countries declaring temporary bans on US beef this week also included Thailand, Malaysia, Russia, South Africa, Jamaica, Chile, and the Chinese territory of Hong Kong -- as well as Brazil and Australia, beef producing-countries that stand to gain economically from the ban.

Still, some felt the scare would not have much effect.

"It's going to be very difficult to get people to change what they eat," said Rosendo Gomez, a 42-year-old office worker eating a beef-and-rice taco at a Mexico City street stand yesterday. "I like meat."

Mexico's Agriculture Department plans to send inspectors to the United States to get firsthand information next week.

"The information we get will help us determine whether the ban stays or is lifted," said Javier Trujillo, the department's director of safety and inspection.

There was no widespread rush to remove US meat from supermarket shelves in Japan. A spokesman at Ito-Yokado, Japan's largest supermarket chain, said the retailer had faith in the safety of the beef already on its shelves and would sell its stocks. However, another chain, Aeon, said it was going to pull American beef from its shelves.

The European Union, which already bans much US beef because of fears over growth hormones, said it would not take any additional measures.

Japan and South Korea are the most lucrative US export markets, with purchases of US beef totaling $1.45 billion in 2002. "We must ban beef imports from the United States for the time being," Health Minister Chikara Sakaguchi of Japan said. "We must recall products that include so-called `dangerous parts' " -- such as brains and spinal cords.

The ban in Mexico is significant because this country imports larger volumes of cheaper cuts -- including parts more likely to carry the disease -- and because of the ban on imports of live US cows.

The United States shipped 106,000 head of cattle to Mexico in 2002, and Mexico was the top buyer of US beef last year in terms of volume, importing 384,900 tons.

"This is a precautionary measure, in which Mexico is saying `stop everything' and we'll study the situation," said Trujillo.

British specialists most experienced with BSE said yesterday that the United States must take swift action to restore consumer confidence in its beef stocks.

"The key here is to restore confidence quickly, not to allow it to drag out," Sean Ricard, former chief economist of Britain's National Farmers' Union, told BBC radio. "What I hope America will do is take rapid action, perhaps slaughter the herd that animal came from."

BSE is thought to be the cause of the fatal brain-wasting human illness variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Scientists believe people get the disease by eating beef products infected with BSE.

Specialists believe the cattle disease was spread through exports of infected animals and meat products. So far, 153 people have died from the human form of mad cow disease, mostly in Britain.