WASHINGTON – Japan’s decision to allow beef and beef products from cattle less than 30 months of age was met with enthusiasm by the US beef industry.

The changes become effective Feb. 1. The previous age limit was 20 months. Industry estimates the change could result in hundreds of millions of dollars in additional US beef exports. The agreement also is an additional step toward normalizing trade with Japan after that country imposed restrictions in response to the discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in the US, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

“This is great news for American ranchers and beef companies, who can now – as a result of this agreement – increase their exports of US beef to their largest market for beef in Asia,” said US Trade Representative Ron Kirk. “This represents a significant and historic step in expanding US beef trade with Japan and growing American exports and jobs here at home. We welcome Japan's action.”

Japan was the second-largest export market for US beef at $849 million and nearly 130,000 metric tons through November 2012, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. J.D. Alexander, NCBA president, said the new protocols were "a shot in the arm" to the beef market and producers facing persistent drought, high input costs and increasing federal regulation.

“This is great news for cattlemen and women and is a significant milestone in our trading relationship with Japan,” Alexander said. “Japan is a great market for US beef and we look forward to continuing to meet Japanese consumer demands. This move is an important step forward in paving the way toward greater export opportunities to one of our largest export markets.”

Other provisions of the agreement stipulate that beef products produced before Feb. 1 must be accompanied by appropriate documentation and produced under the current export verification (EV) program. These products may not be comingled with products produced Feb. 1 or after. Beef products made on Feb. 1 or after must be produced under the new EV program and accompanied by the new export documentation, according to the US Meat Export Federation.

The US and Japan also agreed to regular and ad-hoc consultations to review progress under the agreement and address any issues that may arise.

“We are in the most successful period in history for America's agriculture sector, with agricultural exports this year expected to set yet another record,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “We will continue our efforts to break down barriers and expand access for high-quality, safe and wholesome US food and agricultural products to Japan and around the world.”

USMEF forecasts that US beef exports to Japan in 2013 will increase roughly 45 percent in volume and value, reaching 225,000 metric tons (496 million lbs.) and $1.5 billion.

“This is an extremely positive development that successfully addresses one of the longest standing issues between our two governments,” said Philip Seng, USMEF president and CEO. “The US beef industry — from farmers and ranchers to exporters — will benefit from increased exports to this premium market. At the same time, the trade and consumers in Japan will see a wider variety of beef products and improved availability of US beef in the retail and food service channels.

“We are grateful to the governments of Japan and the United States for their efforts to make this agreement a reality,” Seng added.