The sudden ban on exports on Friday came just six weeks after Japan had lifted an earlier two-year ban on US beef.

The discovery of bone in a veal shipment from New York prompted the order. Asian countries believe the presence of bone indicates a risk of mad cow disease and restrictions against it in beef shipments have remained.

The US agriculture secretary, Mike Johanns, called the problem "an unacceptable failure" to meet Japan's requirements. He dispatched inspectors to Japan and ordered random inspections at US plants.

He said: "We are taking this matter very seriously, recognizing the importance of our beef export markets."

False dawn

The bone discovery is a setback for the American meat industry and the Bush administration. Both had been optimistic about selling more beef in Asia despite the lingering restrictions on US products. 
 

"The facts are indisputable: US beef and veal remain among the safest in the world"

Patick Boyle, American Meat Institute

Japan was once the world's biggest importer of beef from the US. In December it agreed to allow shipments of boneless beef from animals younger than 21 months, a requirement that is stricter than called for in international guidelines.

To celebrate the lifting of the ban one US group flew in a beef shipment for a banquet in Tokyo with the Japanese food service industry. Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore quickly followed Japan's lead on the ban.

Of the $3.9 billion in global sales of American beef and meat products in 2003, Japan accounted for $1.4 billion. The other three countries made up about $911 million.

American beef is now being held at Japanese ports until the United States completes a report on the incident, which Johanns said would be delivered "immediately."  Department officials said Japan will decide at a later date  whether to impose a ban on further imports.

Possible over-reaction

Japan accounts for $1.4 billion in
global sales of US meat products

An industry group pointed out that the product Japan found, bone-in veal, is eaten in the United States and considered safe under international guidelines. The veal was from calves less than six months old, and mad cow disease hasn't been found in animals that young.

Patrick Boyle, the president and CEO of the American Meat Institute, said: "Despite this shipment, sent in error, the facts are indisputable: US beef and veal remain among the safest in the world."

The US government has stopped the plant that sent the shipment, Brooklyn-based Atlantic Veal & Lamb, from selling meat to Japan. Johanns also said he would take action against the department inspector who cleared the shipment. The inspector should have noticed on plant documents that the vertebral column, or the backbone, needed to be removed, he said.

Japanese inspectors found material from cattle backbone in three of 41 boxes in a 386 kg shipment of beef from Atlantic Veal & Lamb. All the beef in the shipment was destroyed. Company officials called it an "honest mistake" and said they misinterpreted the export rules.