TOKYO (Kyodo) — U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack suggested Wednesday that restarting talks on U.S. beef imports, subject to prolonged restrictions because of concerns over mad cow disease, will take priority on his visit to Japan.
Vilsack and Japanese Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Hirotaka Akamatsu are scheduled to hold talks on Thursday. "I think it's important to recognize that we have a new government here in Japan and a relatively new government in the United States," Vilsack told reporters, expressing his hope to resume full-scale discussions, including those on technical matters.
Akamatsu said Japan is ready to resume dialogue, stressing the value of a sound relationship between the two countries. But he also said things must be discussed "from a scientific perspective," and that ensuring safety for consumers must precede maintaining good bilateral relations.
The bilateral talks have been stalled, diplomatic sources said, since the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush asked the previous Japanese government to end the ban on imports of U.S. beef from cattle aged over 20 months, only for Tokyo to refuse.
Some U.S. officials and lawmakers criticize that the age rule has no scientific basis, conflicting with the Japanese argument that it has.
Japanese media have reported Vilsack is expected to propose that Akamatsu ease the age limit by allowing imports of beef from cattle aged less than 30 months, instead of urging the Japanese government to end the import control immediately.
Vilsack declined to comment on the speculation, only saying, "Our hope is we can express a great deal of flexibility in terms of how we move forward."
His visit to Japan coincides with the recent announcement by U.S. President Barack Obama that his country will strive to double its overall exports in five years.
Japan has limited U.S. beef imports since the first U.S. case of the disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, was found in 2003.
The planned meeting between Vilsack and Akamatsu will be the first fully publicized occasion for the countries to have talks on the beef issue since the Democratic Party of Japan won the country's general election last summer.
"The most important thing is building on the relationship we have and to be able to develop a closer relationship," Vilsack said. But he also said, "This is not an easy issue" for both of the countries.
The United States is confident that "we can provide safe and quality products at an affordable cost," the farm secretary also said.
Vilsack was speaking after joining a symposium held in Tokyo, where he said Japan and the United States should cooperate further in addressing global food security through such measures as helping boost productivity and build infrastructure in developing economies.
The two leading economies in the world have a "unique role," Vilsack said. "I believe it's important...that we engage in bilateral opportunities to improve and advance global food security."
The impact of the recent global economic downturn caused some 1 billion people in the world to suffer from malnutrition in 2009, he said, citing U.N. estimates. Although the number has been declining as world economic conditions have improved, the dire situation remains unsolved, the secretary added.