Several news outlets are reporting that Japan will relax its age limits on imported U.S. beef as early as February 1. Currently, Japan limits its imports of U.S. beef to that from cattle 20 months of age or younger, a restriction added when Japan resumed imports of U.S. beef in 2005 following the BSE-related ban that began in 2003. For years, U.S. negotiators have worked to change the age limit to 30 months, which would significantly increase our market access.

Articles from several news agencies, including one from Bloomberg News, quote Japan’s Health Minister Norihisa Tamura saying Japan will change its import restrictions on February 1, provided a panel of medical and food experts give their final approval. The country’s Food Safety Commission recommended easing the restriction last fall, after concluding imports of beef from cattle as old as 30 months would not pose a risk of BSE.

In an interview with Drovers/CattleNetwork last week, U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF) CEO Phil Seng said Japan appeared close to making the change from 20 months to 30, but he did not specify a date. USMEF and other trade negotiators typically are cautious about dates or timelines until firm agreements are reached.

According to an article from, a shift to 30 months would make 95 percent of U.S. cattle eligible for export to Japan, compared with about 20 percent under the 20-month rule.

USMEF lists increased beef access to Japan as the number-one opportunity for U.S. beef exports this year. In 2000, prior to the discovery of BSE in the United States, our beef exports to Japan reached 1.16 billion pounds valued at $1.77 billion, and accounted for 43 percent by volume and 50 percent of the value of all U.S. beef exports that year. We also enjoyed a 53 percent share of Japan’s beef imports at the time. USMEF notes that most of the lost volume was not made up by other countries, leaving a void in the Japanese market. In 2012, Japan imported a total of about 575,000 metric tons compared to 857,715 metric tons in 2000. USMEF sees that void as an opportunity for U.S. beef to regain market share in Japan.

A change in the age restriction could result in lower prices for U.S. beef in Japan and significant growth in demand, with positive effects on U.S. cattle prices. The one downside would be that some producers who have targeted the Japanese market, earning premiums by using age and source verification coupled with calf-fed production systems to produce beef qualified for export to Japan.