Japanese news reports have suggested that Japan was aware that all but two US beef processing plants allowed to export to the country had previously flouted regulations designed to prevent bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) entering the food chain.

Japan had eased its ban on US beef in December, limiting imports to cuts of beef from cows aged 20-months or younger and excluding high-risk body parts including the brain and spinal column. Just days after the ban was eased, a US shipment of veal was found to contain prohibited backbone and the import ban was reintroduced.

According to a report in the Asahi Shimbun, which cites Japan’s Health Minister Jiro Kawasaki, 36 out of 38 beef processors allowed to export to Japan had records of violating rules to remove high-risk body parts.

Kawasaki informed a Parliamentary meeting Wednesday (15 February) that the US Department of Agriculture had notified Japan of the meatpackers’ history of violations in August, according to the paper. The health minister added that the Government was satisfied that safety standards at those facilities complied with the terms of the US-Japan trade agreement.

This fresh revelation may add to pressure on the Government to take a strong line regarding US beef imports. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said Wednesday that Japan will maintain its strict safety standards for US beef imports.