I assumed my food was cooked. But I learned my lesson, and nowadays I always pass on the sushi. Why take a chance?

Ironically, for 28 of the last 29 months, Japan has passed on American beef–the very kind I produce here in Iowa. Three years ago, no country imported more beef from the United States than Japan: 240,000 tons in 2003, valued at $1.4 billion. But all that came to a screeching halt in the wake of the phony scare over mad-cow disease.

The good news is Japan has agreed to end its ban on U.S. beef imports, and some of the final details may be ironed out as Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visits President Bush this week. The Japanese will want to inspect a number of the plants that prepare meats for foreign markets. Assuming they pass inspection, we’ll begin rebuilding our old business.

“I don’t believe that we are months away,” said Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns on June 22. “I think it’s more likely that we are weeks away from [U.S.] beef being back in Japan.”

Then again, everyone was optimistic last December, when Japan lifted its beef ban. A few weeks later, Japanese inspectors found forbidden bits of bone in a veal shipment from New York. Political knees jerked and the ban was back in place.

The U.S. officials are running out of patience. “There has to be a better way of trading than to close the whole border if there is a problem,” complained Johanns last week. “We don’t close the whole border to Japanese automobiles if we have a recall.”

Nor should we. One solution calls for Japan to reject individual orders of beef if there are specific defects, rather than cutting off every American producer. A cattle rancher in Texas, after all, has about as much to do with a veal problem in New York as a rancher in Australia does. Yet Australian ranchers tend to benefit when Japan bans American beef; they get the business instead.

Developing a national tracking system for cattle might help. Two years ago, when mad-cow disease appeared for the first time in the United States, Johanns’s predecessor, Ann Venemen, promised that one would be created. So far, the Department of Agriculture has spent $85 million on the project, and it should begin to go online next year. Animals would receive a unique number, and they would be tracked as they move from place to place. The US Meat Export Federation is prepared with ‘farm to fork’ videos and special promotions called ‘We Care”, just for the Japanese, and the tracking systems are a huge leap forward to support that.

If the tracking system works properly–to the point at which foreign governments and markets have full confidence in it–the investment will pay off. That initial case of mad-cow disease didn’t merely hurt our beef sales in Japan: Overall beef exports fell from more than $3 billion in 2003 to a little more than $500 million in 2004. (They rose to just under $1 billion last year.)

The bottom line is that a small investment now could save billions later on. And that’s just in reference to beef that ships to other countries. Americans would benefit even more, because most of the beef produced in the United States stays in the United States. Therefore, domestic consumers have an even greater stake in the health and traceability of American cattle.

We understand that Japanese politicians have made political hay in their own country from the BSE issue. But, unless we set matters right, we’re going to find ourselves locked in a full-scale trade war. Several senators have proposed that the United States impose more than $3 billion in retaliatory sanctions if U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab cannot certify by August 31 that Japan is open to American beef.

It seems economics and politics are chained together in this matter, so straight-forward trade negotiations are not so straight and often don’t go forward. But, it’s important to remember that nobody ever wins a trade war. There are only losers–sort of like when a restaurant gives you food poisoning.

Reg Clause, a Truth About Trade and Technology board member (www.truthabouttrrade.org) raises cattle, corn and soybeans on a fourth generation family farm in central Iowa.