Cattle ranchers were buoyed Monday by news that Japan will relax beef-import restrictions as soon as the end of this week.
Removing restrictions introduced at the height of the mad-cow disease scare a decade ago could potentially double Canadian beef sales to that country, government and industry officials said.
Japan's Foreign Ministry announced Monday it will allow imports of beef from cows up to 30 months old, effective this Friday, from Canada, the U.S., France and the Netherlands. The previous standard was to ban imports of beef from animals older than 20 months.
Local producers were pleased.
"Big time," said David Haywood-Farmer, who ranches west of Kamloops. As a director of B.C. Cattlemen's Association, he was part of a trade delegation that toured China, Japan and Korea last summer, hoping to open up markets to Canadian producers.
"I left Japan feeling very optimistic because we had a very good feeling that they were going to be responding," Haywood-Farmer said. "The beef buyers and the people of Japan were really looking for some grain-fed beef."
"It will help the industry," said Bev Barker, a rancher who works part-time for B.C. Livestock Producers Co-operative Association. "There's no doubt there.
Haywood-Farmer said it was difficult to maintain a consistent production when Japan restricted its market to the under-20-months rule, which was imposed in 2005.
"With this opening up, we think it will double (Canadian exports), so it's a really substantial increase," he said. "It's just so good to have a positive signal to the B.C. beef industry."
"It's a gradual recovery," said Tom Vickers, a market operator with the livestock association. "The more it opens up, the more it helps."
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz called the deal "tremendous news."
"This achievement is a result of a lot of hard work on the part of the government working shoulder to shoulder with industry both here in Canada and through our embassy in Japan," Ritz said.
The Canadian government estimates the potential market value of beef exports to Japan will rise to between $140 million and $150 million a year, about double what they have been.
Japan's Health Ministry approved the change — which also applies to beef imports from the United States, France and Netherlands — following public hearings.
"As part of our government's plan to create jobs, growth and long-term prosperity for all Canadians by opening new markets, we have been working closely with Japan to expand access for our exporters," said Trade Minister Ed Fast.
"Today's announcement is proof that these efforts are getting results, and we look forward to taking our trading relationship with Japan to the next level through an Economic Partnership Agreement which would provide additional export opportunities for Canadian businesses."
The beef industry's marketing arm, Canada Beef Inc., said the decision could "potentially double Canadian beef sales to Japan."
Japan banned beef imports in 2003 from several countries after a fatal brain disease was discovered in a few animals, leading to concern that eating their meat could pose a health risk for humans.
Canadian beef producers were hit hard by the import bans imposed by Japan and other countries, including the United States. The
Canadian monitoring system was also criticized and later improved.
Japan is Canada's third-largest export market for beef. Canadian exports of beef from animals under 21 months of age for the last three years were worth approximately $70 million to $75 million a year.