BILLINGS - The cattle industry is hailing Japan's decision to resume limited beef shipments from the United States, nearly two years after a case of mad cow disease in this country halted the lucrative trade.
But the government's plan to also lift its ban on beef from Japan _ a country that's reported 21 cases of mad cow disease, compared to the United States' two _ was viewed more cautiously and even skeptically, by some.
Bill Bullard, chief executive of the ranchers' group R-CALF United Stockgrowers of America, called the announcement by the U.S. Department of Agriculture premature, given that a number of foreign markets remain closed to U.S. beef.
He said it was a "politically based decision that effectively trumps science," one that puts U.S. cattle producers at a disadvantage in the global marketplace.
Many in the industry were focused Monday on Japan's decision to allow limited beef trade for the first time since December 2003, when a cow in Washington state was discovered to have mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE.
Dozens of countries responded to that case by closing their borders to U.S. beef; many have since reopened, at least partially. The Japanese market was particularly prized, however, because it was worth an estimated $1.4 billion in 2003, before that initial mad cow case.
"Anytime you regain the opportunity to expand your market by $1.4 billion … our entire industry has to be very, very happy," said Steve Pilcher, executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association.
The renewed trade comes with restrictions, namely, that U.S. beef must come from cattle 20 months of age or younger. U.S. agriculture leaders have said that the cut-off has no basis in science. But many in the industry see any trade as positive and as an opportunity for the United States to again get its foot in the door.
"We're very pleased to have this first step taken. But we see it as just that _ a first step," said Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association.
Questions still remain for industry leaders about how fast the United States can regain market share it lost to other countries, such as Australia, and confidence of Japanese consumers. There are also questions about the availability of U.S. beef that will qualify for the Japanese market.
Lynn Heinze, a spokesman for the U.S. Meat Export Federation, said that while the majority of cattle slaughtered in this country are younger animals, the hard part will be ensuring they are qualified for the Japanese market. He said it's expected an estimated 15 percent to 20 percent of such cattle would qualify initially.