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The Japanese government announced on Friday that it has once again halted shipments of American beef into Japan because animal spines were found in three boxes of frozen beef being brought into the country. The discovery reignited concerns in Japan about the possibility that beef tainted with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) – better known as mad cow disease – could be coming from US suppliers.

The decision comes just a month after a two-year-old ban on US beef was lifted after months of intense negotiation, on the condition that imported US beef come from cattle no older than 20 months and that spinal cords, brains and other parts blamed for spreading the human variant of mad-cow disease be removed.

Before the ban, which was implemented after the first case of BSE was discovered on US soil more than two years ago, Japan was the most lucrative market in the world for American beef, importing than $1.7 billion worth in 2003.

US Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns promised to send inspectors to Japan to examine shipments, and said that he was increasing the number of unannounced inspections in American plants. Still, he conceded that mistakes had been made. "Our agreement with Japan is to export beef with no vertebral column and we have failed to meet the terms of that agreement," Johanns said in a statement.

While halting of shipments is described as “temporary,” it remains possible that a broader and long-lasting ban could be reinstated.
KC's View:
We have no doubt that at some point, an American bureaucrat (whether from the public or private sector) will stand up and point to this event as proof that the system is working…ignoring or hoping to obfuscate the fact that it is the Japanese system that seems to be working, not ours.

Critics (including many far wiser than MNB) say that the US system seems more intent on protecting industry than consumers, that simple math and the laws of probability suggest that there have been more than two cases of mad cow disease on US soil – and that the net hasn’t been drawn tight enough to catch all of them. But we told that we are alarmists, that there is nothing to worry about.

Not long ago, we interviewed Barbara Masters, an administrator with USDA’s Food Safety And Inspection Service, and she told us, in essence, that plenty of inspections were being done and that everybody was pretty much pleased with the system in place. She refused to even address the very real concerns of consumer activists concerned about the safety of the meat supply, or the possibility that maybe the government was doing an inadequate job of communicating effectively with the consuming public.

At some level, the government and the beef industry are playing a game of “who do you trust?” with the American public – and it is a game that is unlikely to end well for either industry or consumers.

Though, on second thought, maybe the game isn’t “who do you trust?”. Maybe this sometimes-fatal game has another name.