Japan Halts U.S. Beef Imports -- Again

This was not a case of mad cow disease, according to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns. But there was certainly evidence of a mad scramble at the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Friday morning.

Just hours after Japan halted American beef imports because officials there discovered a shipment containing bone that they considered at risk for mad cow disease, Johanns spoke to reporters in a hastily arranged news conference. He didn't mince words.

"While this is not a food-safety issue, this is an unacceptable failure on our part to meet the requirements of our agreement with Japan," he said. "We take this matter very seriously."

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told reporters Friday that it was "extremely important to secure the food safety for the Japanese people." It is not clear how long the stoppage will be in place.

The tissue Japan found, spinal column from veal, is allowed in the American food supply because it comes from animals younger than 30 months. However, the agreement with Japan bars spinal column and other bone tissue. But because of the sensitivity of the issue, Johanns announced he was dispatching a team of USDA inspectors to Japan to work with Japanese inspectors to re-examine every beef shipment.

Department officials said that, for now, American beef is being held at Japanese ports until the USDA completes a report on what happened, which Johanns intends to deliver "immediately."

In the meantime, Johanns said the Brooklyn-based Atlantic Veal & Lamb, the plant that sent the shipment, was banned from selling meat to Japan. Federal inspectors who approved the shipment were also put on notice.

"We will take appropriate personnel action against the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service employee who conducted the inspection of the product in question and approved it to be shipped to Japan," he said.

The USDA has ordered unannounced inspections at every processing plant that is approved to ship beef overseas. There are approximately 2,500 processing plants in the United States. Many of them are located in Pennsylvania, New York, Nebraska, Texas and Michigan.

Johanns said he would try to reassure other Asian countries that followed the lead of Japan, which six weeks ago ended a ban on American beef imposed after the discovery of mad cow disease in the United States in December 2003. Exports of American beef were worth $3.9 billion in 2003, and Japan accounted for almost one-third of all U.S. sales.

Before this latest incident, U.S. officials were optimistic about selling more beef to Asia despite some import restrictions that remain in place because of past mad cow scares. South Korea and Singapore just lifted their bans earlier this month.

Despite the quick U.S. response to calm consumer concerns in Asia, the incident is a clear setback for the U.S. beef industry.

"This simply shouldn't have happened," Johanns said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.