updated 5/18/2006 10:42:04 PM ET 2006-05-19T02:42:04

The Japanese government approved a survey of safety checks being taken by the U.S. meatpacking industry, opening the door to talks about reopening the Japanese market to U.S. beef imports, a news report said.

Japanese officials gave their approval to an audit report presented by Chuck Lambert, U.S. undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, on compliance checks carried out at the 35 meatpacking plants that have applied to export to Japan, Kyodo News agency reported.

Lambert was scheduled to speak to reporters about the talks later Friday morning.

Media reports have said Tokyo wants to lift the ban on U.S. beef imports by the time Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visits the United States in June. However, a government spokesman said Wednesday the decision would be based on whether food safety had been assured, rather than political considerations.

Koizumi was quoted by Kyodo News agency on Thursday as saying Japan would reopen the market if the government's preconditions were met.

Tokyo has said that before starting talks on market reopening, it wanted first to review the survey results and get answers to questions about the plants seeking to export to Japan.

Lambert said Wednesday as the talks began that he hoped to answer Tokyo's questions and determine when and how trade will resume.

Mad cow disease ended imports
Japan initially shut its profitable market for U.S. beef in December 2003 after the first discovery of mad cow disease in the United States. The ban was eased in December 2005 to allow the import of meat from cows 20 months old or younger.

But in January, Japanese customs officials found spine bones — which Tokyo considers a risk for the disease — in a shipment of American veal, and the market was closed again.

Since then, the U.S. conducted an investigation into the faulty shipment and submitted a report to Japanese authorities. Tokyo, however, had additional questions it wants answered before reopening the market.

Japan was once the most lucrative overseas market for U.S. beef, buying some $1.4 billion in 2003.

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