* Govt bans beef shipments from 4 prefectures
* Local govts yet to offer inspection plans needed to lift
* Scare hasn't boosted beef imports, ministry to keep eye
By Chikako Mogi
TOKYO, Aug 3 Japan's widening ban on cattle
shipments after the discovery of radiation-contaminated feed
will reduce domestic beef output in the short term, but it
remains unclear to what degree suppliers such as Australia and
the United States could benefit.
Japan has extended its ban on beef cattle shipments to four
prefectures in the northeast after discovering that some farmers
had fed their cattle straw that was left outdoors following the
March 11 earthquake and subsequently contaminated with
radioactive cesium from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear
In fiscal 2009/10, combined cattle shipments from the four
prefectures -- Iwate, Miyagi, Fukushima and Tochigi -- had
accounted for about 13 percent of total shipments in Japan.
A health, labour and welfare ministry official said no
prefecture has yet provided detailed inspection plans for their
cattle, which is a precondition for lifting the shipments ban,
so it remains unclear when the government could lift the ban and
allow farmers to restart production.
"Beef consumption in general has been declining, including
domestic beef, and there are stocks, so we don't expect beef
imports to jump immediately," a farm ministry official said.
"It's been just a couple of weeks since the ban on some
shipments, so we will need to carefully monitor their impact on
the market, although we do not foresee any major effect."
Japanese beef imports in the first six months of 2011 rose 5
percent from the first half of 2010 but were down 11 percent
from the second half. Japan's beef production for January to May
inched down about 1 percent from the same period a year ago.
Australia is by far the biggest beef exporter to Japan, but
its share has been hurt by the strength of the Australian
dollar, which increased costs relative to U.S. beef and helped
boost U.S. market share.
Japan imported 35,922 tonnes of beef in June, the latest
farm ministry data showed, down from 40,197 tonnes in May and
below levels seen before the March 11 earthquake and tsunami,
which damaged wide areas of northeastern Japan.
In June, beef from Australia accounted for 63 percent of
imports, with 27 percent from the United States. That compares
with March figures of 72 percent from Australia and 18 percent
from the United States.
"One reason is the Australian dollar's strength relative to
the U.S. dollar, and the fact that the U.S. share had been low,"
another farm ministry official said.
Imports of chilled beef, which can be consumed immediately,
amounted to 19,600 tonnes in June, recovering close to the March
level of 20,870 tonnes, the highest so far this year. In both
May and June, the Australian share of chilled beef imports was
about 65 percent and the U.S. share was about 30 percent.
The beef radiation scare has heightened public anxiety over
the safety of the food supply after excessive levels of
radiation were found in vegetables, tea, milk, seafood and water
in the wake of the March 11 disaster, which triggered the
world's worst nuclear accident in 25 years.
Sales at Yoshinoya Holdings , which uses imported
beef and runs a nationwide chain of fast-food restaurants
serving bowls of beef and rice, saw a steady doubling in both
May and June from year-ago levels, after taking a hit in April
due to sluggish consumption following the earthquake.
"We aren't observing any correlation between our sales and
worries about radiation contamination," a Yoshinoya official
said, suggesting sales may have been linked more to people's
preference for low prices.
Masayo Kondo, president of research firm Commodity
Intelligence in Tokyo, said the beef scare was unlikely to be a
major concern for most Japanese, although many with children
might be worried.
"But in theory, if domestic beef production falls and demand
remains steady, that will mean there is scope for imports to
grow. The question is, by how much? Maybe consumers will stay
away from beef altogether and eat chicken or pork."
(editing by Jane Baird)