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Discovery of SRM in US beef divides Japanese trade

Japan suspended imports from a National Beef plant (California, US) on 24 April, following the discovery of Specified Risk Material (SRM) in one of 700 boxes at a Yoshinoya gyudon (beef rice bowl) processing factory in Tokyo.

It is another blow to the Japanese trade who are willing to push US beef sales to take advantage of the recent appreciation of the Japanese yen against the US$. The news, however, did not stop the retail giant Aeon Group from announcing the re-launch of US beef in their supermarket chains from May. Major retailers, such as Daiei, had already removed beef imported from the banned US packer.

Although there had been several violations of the current import protocols by other US meat plants, this was the first SRM case since the resumption of US beef imports in July 2006. Japan’s agricultural Minister Wakabayashi expressed his disappointment, but also noted that Japan/US beef trade conditions are being reviewed based on scientific assessment, regardless of this incident.

Both the government and business in Japan have quickly responded to this non-compliance issue. The frequency of random Japanese quarantine checks on US beef has been stepped up, and the new measure is expected to continue until full investigation reports are received from the US.

Retailers Daiei and Maruetsu immediately removed beef sourced from the banned plant. Seiyu, another major retailer, suspended purchases from the plant. Uny, a regional supermarket chain, stopped sales of all US beef (Uny later resumed sales after confirming the government’s inspection upgrade).

In contrast, Aeon was undeterred by the incident, making an announcement next day (25 April) that they will resume sales of US beef, as it reportedly has established a “dual check system” on all US imports with a safety certification endorsed by a third party. Aeon expects to sell 20 tonnes of US beef – 2% of their monthly beef sales – one day per month at their 470 outlets, priced approximately 100 yen/kg (approximately A$1/kg) cheaper than equivalent Australian products.

Yoshinoya, the flagship user of US beef who had identified the issue this time, said that they will continue to serve its signature US beef bowls, as they see no problems with their safety control system. Family restaurant chain Skylark is also reported to be maintaining their steak menu sourced from National.

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