U.S. Presses Beef With Japan

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Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns pressed the Japanese ambassador to the United States Thursday to set a date for Japan to resume buying U.S. beef.

Japan agreed last October to lift the ban it imposed after the December 2003 discovery of the United States' only case of mad cow disease. But negotiations have slowed over the issue of how to determine the age of cattle.

"I'm confident he will express my desires immediately to his government, and I'm confident that will occur today," Johanns told reporters after meeting for about 30 minutes with the ambassador, Ryozo Kato.

Japan was the most lucrative foreign market for U.S. beef before the ban, accounting for about $1.7 billion in sales in 2003.

Johanns said the ambassador was not prepared to give a date. The new agriculture secretary said he offered to do whatever necessary, including having a USDA team work on the issue around-the-clock.

"The ambassador's response, I believe, was along the lines of, 'We understand the importance of this issue. We're going to do everything we can,'" Johanns said. "I certainly felt a willingness to work with us and to get this behind us. We both expressed that."

He said they did not discuss the issue of the U.S. resuming beef trade with Canada, which is scheduled to happen March 7.

"I see this as one step, a very important step, in establishing a candid working relationship," Johanns said. "I just want people to know that I will continue to do all I can at the highest levels of government."

To underscore how important the issue is, Johanns said, he told the ambassador his appearance before the Senate Agriculture Committee was "not so much a confirmation hearing as an airing of frustration."

"It was absolutely unified and unanimous in question after question after question: 'Gov. Johanns, what are you going to do to resume trade with Japan?'" said Johanns, who resigned as Nebraska's governor after winning confirmation Jan. 20.