Japan's stance over BSE abroad and its own response to its nine cases so far, has exposed the short fallings of a government keen to blame anyone but itself and dogged in its attempts to protect its 'safe' domestic beef, while eschewing 'tainted' imports. Michael Fitzpatrick investigates.

When former bank of Japan president Yutaka Yamaguchi rejected a serving of Canadian beef recently at a business conference there, he sparked an uproar in North America and touched a nerve that had long been sensitive to outsiders - Japan's reluctance to accept foreign beef imports.

This news of the beef-shy Japanese dignitary came shortly after Japan announced it would not accept American imports unless the United States can guarantee its beef had no contact with Canadian cattle. Japan is the number one destination for US beef exports.

Canada had its first outbreak of mad cow disease earlier this year and all imports were banned to Japan. Since the Canadian and US market is highly integrated, the Japanese stance means US imports are virtually frozen until some sort of labelling becomes acceptable to Japan. "Blatant protectionism," cry the critics - accusations which so far Japan has not yet countered.

Do as you would be done by?

Japan has further incited lashings of foreign tongues with its handling of its latest outbreak of mad cow disease, blaming those particular cases on Italy.

In November Japan confirmed its ninth mad cow case, a 21-month-old bull in Hiroshima and one of the youngest ever recorded victims of the brain wasting disease, according to the Japanese farm ministry.

Japan's head of BSE research, Takashi Onodera at Tokyo University, concluded Japan's latest two cases were atypical and similar to Italian cases reported earlier, therefore bone meal imported from Italy may have caused the Japanese case.

However, the latest case and the recent discovery of another young animal this October infected with the disease has called into question the Japanese government's insistence that BSE in Japan came from infected imported animals and MBM feed.

In the latest case the Holstein bull was born after the sale of the meat-and-bone meal was banned in October 2001.

The eighth cow to be infected in Ibaraki Prefecture, near Tokyo, was also born some time after the feed ban. The news of the eighth case early last month shocked the beef and dairy industry because the cow was unusually young to become infected - at 23 months old - and had an unreported pattern of abnormal protein particles.

Too quick to jump to conclusions

Dr Markus Moser of Prionics, a Swiss company that makes BSE tests like those used in Japan and Italy, says that Onodera was mistaken to jump to such conclusions.

"Japan's latest BSE cases were detected in very young animals. In addition Japan as well as France and Italy reported BSE cases which seem to have an atypical appearance. The molecular properties of the cases differ from each other so that there is no reason to suspect a common origin.

"In general, caution should be used before drawing conclusions based on individual BSE cases. Future atypical BSE findings will have to be awaited before definite conclusions can be drawn on the possible existence and proper-ties of multiple BSE strains."

With the world's toughest screening for BSE now in place in Japan some experts say that Japan's special policy of testing all slaughtered animals even those under than 30 and 24 months would explain the detection of BSE in an apparently symptomless animal.

"If you look for trouble, you will find it"

"My impression, having been in Japan when their first BSE case was confirmed, is that if you look hard enough for trouble, you will find it," said Prof. Dean O. Cliver, at the University of California's School of Veterinary Medicine. "The meat from even this positive animal probably was no threat to consumer health." Since the first case was detected in 2001, all slaughtered cows have been checked for the disease before the meat is authorised for consumption.

Arnon Shimshony, associate professor at the Koret School of Veterinary Medicine in Jerusalem, working for the International Society for Infectious Diseases, has this to say about the case:

"In view of the exceptional nature of this [eighth] case - especially the negative histochemistry - and its potential implications in a global sense, one wonders whether the Japanese investigators might have considered obtaining confirmation of the diagnosis from an international reference laboratory."

Is there another route of contamination?

The fact that the bull, which was born after the first domestic case came to light, was confirmed as having the disease indicates that there may be another route of contamination, non-Japanese experts now agree.

BSE expert Will Hueston at the University of Minnesota told the university's Centre for Infectious Disease Research & Policy that it wasn't clear what the finding of an atypical prion protein means.

"Some pathologists we've talked to have said they think the findings could just describe an early case of BSE," he said. He further speculated in a further report that the protein pattern from a brain tissue sample from an early, asymptomatic case could differ from what would be seen in a full clinical case.

"For me the Japanese case suggests that in fact they had a much larger epidemic than most people realise, because this animal had a massive exposure to develop the disease this early," he said.

A far from level playing field

Critics say Japan is ruling out international cooperation on further tests just as it ignored safety warnings from foreign countries about infected bone meal. Long after the first warnings Japan continued to import such feed and now it is reaping the whirlwind, only it seems it wants to hurt foreign importers too.

Japan is the US's largest foreign beef market, purchasing more than $1.2bn worth of US beef in 2001. Using a technicality agreed during a WTO agreement Japan has automatically increased its beef tariff from 38.5% to 50% because imports have surged of late. Exporters argue that beef imports are merely recovering from severely depressed levels following the September 2001 outbreak of mad cow disease. Nonetheless the tariffs stick and Japanese consumers are left paying some of the highest prices in the world for beef while paying a massive bill for BSE screening.

Although Japan is the only Asian country where BSE has been confirmed, mad cow disease appears to be spreading globally, a fact many in Japan including the Canadian beef decliner Mr Yamaguchi seem to be painfully unaware of. Nor has the Japanese government satisfactorily explained why Japanese beef is safe to eat but Canadian or US beef may not be.