WASHINGTON — In what promises to be a costly blunder, a Brooklyn-based meat company sent a shipment of veal to Japan that included cattle backbones, material the Japanese consider at risk for mad cow disease.
As a result, just 5 1/2 weeks after reopening its border to American beef, the Japanese abruptly slammed it shut again on Friday.
The announcement immediately set off a round of mea culpas from the U.S. beef industry and the Department of Agriculture. Agriculture Secretary Michael Johanns dispatched a team of inspectors to Japan and vowed to bolster inspections at U.S. plants that export beef.
He also prohibited the company that shipped the veal, Atlantic Veal & Lamb, from exporting any more beef to Japan.
"This is an unacceptable failure on our part to meet the requirements of our agreement with this trading partner, the country of Japan," Johanns said. "We are taking this matter seriously, recognizing the importance of our beef export market, and we are acting swiftly and firmly.
"This just simply should not have happened," he added. "I am very unhappy about this. Our inspector should have caught this."
While offering the Japanese government an array of measures to reassure them about U.S. beef, including a promise to reprimand the USDA inspector who checked out the problem shipment, U.S. officials — and the beef industry — sought to convince consumers that there was no public-health crisis.
Rather, they insisted, the United States had simply violated trade protocol.
As a condition of reopening its borders to U.S. beef after an earlier mad cow scare, Japan demanded that only cattle 20 months old or younger be shipped and that all high-risk body parts that are more likely to carry mad cow disease, like brains and spinal cords, be removed. The backbones came from veal that was less than 4 1/2 months old.
The U.S. government considers cattle less than 30 months at minimal risk for mad cow disease.
"This is not a food-safety issue but a matter of compliance under a unique trade agreement with Japan," Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, said in prepared remarks.
Regardless, the Japanese government said the border would remain closed until Agriculture could provide an explanation for how the forbidden material ended up in a shipment to Japan. Even if the border is reopened, the U.S. beef industry has a formidable challenge wooing Japanese consumers.
In a survey last month by Kyodo News, 75 percent of Japanese consumers said they wouldn't eat U.S. beef because of concerns over mad cow disease.
"This is a pity given that imports had just resumed," Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told the Associated Press in Tokyo. "I received the agriculture minister's report over the telephone with his recommendations that imports be halted, and I think it is a good idea."
Philip Peerless, president of Atlantic Veal & Lamb, said his company would cooperate fully with the USDA investigation to ensure that "our export programs going forward operate in a way that is fully consistent with export requirements.
"We are absolutely confident that the product is safe," he said, in a prepared statement. "However, we regret that there was a misinterpretation of the export requirements and an honest mistake involving a very small amount of product that has led to this degree of concern."