According to the Associated Press and other major news agencies, Japan's prime minister today said his country will halt imports of American beef after a recent shipment was found that may contain material considered at risk for mad cow disease.

"This is a pity given that imports had just resumed," Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told the AP and other reporters in Tokyo. "I received the agriculture minister's report with his recommendation that the imports be halted, and I think it is a good idea."

The statement said ministry inspectors found material from cattle backbone in three out of 41 boxes in a 858-pound shipment of beef from Atlantic Veal & Lamb Inc., the AP reported. All of the beef in the shipment was destroyed, the statement reportedly said.

Under an agreement announced Dec. 11, 2005, the United States was able to export beef from cattle 20 months of age and younger to Japan. The stipulation was, however, that the beef be boneless.

But today, according to the AP, Japan's agriculture minister said he believes U.S. meat producers have already violated that agreement. Agriculture Minister Shoichi Nakagawa recommended that American beef imports be banned totally if the recent U.S meat shipment is confirmed to have contained material at risk for the disease.

The material in question -- cattle backbone -- is one of the cow parts thought to be at high risk of containing mad cow disease, along with brains and bone marrow.

Ag Secretary Johanns acts to de-list plant and launch wide-spread inspections

After today's announcement by the prime minister, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns issued the following statement (revised/updated by USDA at 9:30 CST):

"We take this matter very seriously and we are conducting a thorough investigation.

"I have talked with Ambassador Kato, and I expressed our regret and informed him of our actions. I also offered to provide in writing an outline of our actions and the results of our investigation into this matter.

"Under U.S. regulations, the backbone, or vertebral column, that was exported to Japan is not a specified risk material because it was in beef under 30 months. However, our agreement with Japan is to export beef with no vertebral column and we have failed to meet the terms of that agreement.

"The processing plant that exported this product has been de-listed and therefore can no longer export beef to Japan. We will take the appropriate personnel action against the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service employee who conducted the inspection of the product in question and approved it to be shipped to Japan.

"I am dispatching a team of USDA inspectors to Japan to work with Japanese inspectors to reexamine every shipment currently awaiting approval, to confirm compliance with the requirements of our export agreement with Japan.

"I have directed that additional USDA inspectors be sent to every plant that is approved to export beef to review procedures and ensure compliance with our export agreements and I am requiring that two USDA inspectors review every shipment of U.S. beef for export to confirm that compliance. I have also ordered unannounced inspections at every plant approved for beef export.

"These additional inspection requirements in the U.S. will be applied to all processing plants approved for beef export and all beef shipments designated for export from the U.S.

"I am also requiring that all USDA beef inspectors undergo additional training to make certain they are fully aware of all export agreement requirements. And, I have directed my staff to coordinate a meeting of representatives from all U.S. processing plants that export beef to review those requirements.

"While this is not a food safety issue, this is an unacceptable failure on our part to meet the requirements of our agreement with Japan. We take this matter seriously, recognizing the importance of our beef export market, and we are acting swiftly and firmly."

SOURCES: USDA news releases, Associated Press reports.