Time for action on trade

During a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Toyota safety issues, I asked rhetorically what Japan would do if we treated their automobile exports the same way they treated our beef exports.  This was in the wake of the numerous reports of safety issues with Toyotas.  My point was not to suggest that we should ban Toyotas or any cars from Japan, but rather to highlight the unfair manner in which Japan has treated U.S. beef exports.

On Dec. 23, 2003, one Canadian cow in the U.S. was discovered to be infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), more commonly referred to as mad cow disease. The incident became known as “the cow that stole Christmas.” The international response was swift and devastating with many countries banning all U.S. beef and beef products immediately.

Among the nations closing their borders was Japan, which still restricts most U.S. beef products.  These restrictions are particularly harmful because before 2003, Japan was the largest export market for U.S. beef, valued at $1.4 billion annually.

However, the U.S. had been preparing for a potential BSE find long before the 2003 case, dating back to the 1980s. The government had already implemented a series of safeguards to protect American consumers and beef producers from the threat.  After 2003, we stepped up those safeguards in order to reassure consumers that U.S. beef is the safest in the world.

Those efforts paid off, as shown in a 2006 study by USDA that found BSE was virtually nonexistent among the 40 million adult cattle in our country.  In 2007, the World Organization for Animal Health, the internationally recognized standard-setting body, also known as the OIE, classified the United States as a “controlled risk” country for BSE. This classification simply means that because of the expansive system of safeguards that are in place, U.S. beef is safe for export and for consumption.  Incidentally, Japan recently received the exact same classification from OIE.

Several countries that banned U.S. beef after the 2003 incident, including Canada and those in the European Union, have re-opened their markets to all U.S. beef, recognizing that our beef products are safe and in accordance with internationally-accepted standards.  Japan however, has refused to do so.  Consequently, U.S. beef producers still face restrictions in what was once their biggest export market after almost seven years of responsible action on their part and on the part of our government.

The U.S. is an important trading partner for Japan.  During the last six years, the United States has purchased, on average, more than $132 billion in Japanese goods annually.  In 2009 alone, even in the midst of a global economic downturn, the United States purchased $95.9 billion of products from Japan.  If we were to impose restrictions on their exports as they have on our beef, the impact would be as devastating to their economy as it has been to our beef industry.

According to the U.S. Meat Export Federation, in 2003, there were more than 1.2 million metric tons of U.S. beef and variety meat worth nearly $4 billion exported to the world.  Last year, there was 30 percent less ­— approximately 900,000 metric tons, worth about $3 billion.  Needless to say, Japan’s unreasonable restrictions are a significant reason for this reduction in our beef exports.

As Secretary of Agriculture, reopening markets to U.S. beef was one of my top priorities, and it was met with some success.  Through firm and consistent negotiating, we regained market access for several types of U.S. beef.  I’ve continued those efforts in the U.S. Senate, meeting with the Japanese ambassador and sponsoring bipartisan legislation urging Japan, among other countries, to lift their restrictions on U.S. beef and adhere to internationally recognized standards.

I’ve also worked in other ways toward expanding our agricultural exports.  Trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea have been signed for years and yet are still awaiting Congressional approval. 

These agreements would boost our agriculture producers by lowering tariffs and other barriers and, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, would together lead to an increase in American exports by more than $40 billion.

In his State of the Union address earlier this year, President Barack Obama pledged to double U.S. exports during the next five years, citing the benefit to our economy and jobs.  Through good-faith efforts with Japan and action on our trade agreements, we have the means to do this at our fingertips.  Creating jobs and boosting our economy cannot be achieved merely by setting worthy goals in powerful speeches. We must take action toward achieving them.  If we are serious about doubling American exports, and we should be, passing the trade agreements and pressing our trading partners to treat our exports fairly will constitute a giant leap toward that goal.

Sen. Johanns is a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee and served as Agriculture Secretary under George W. Bush.