updated 3/26/2004 8:36:32 PM ET 2004-03-27T01:36:32

The United States has formally notified its trading partners that U.S. beef is safe to eat, a principal step toward negotiations to lift bans they imposed because of mad cow disease.

The letters to his counterparts abroad from the Agriculture Department's chief veterinarian, Ron DeHaven, were accompanied by summaries of what the United States has done to protect beef safety and search for other cases of mad cow. About 50 countries banned U.S. beef or cattle since bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, was identified in December in a cow in Washington state.

"This information demonstrates that any remaining trade restrictions against U.S. beef and beef products can be lifted without compromising safety," DeHaven said in a statement Friday.

The department said U.S. responses to its case of BSE fully comply with international standards. It urged the countries that banned the import of U.S. beef or cattle to "modify any remaining trade restrictions."

Since mad cow disease was found in the 6 1/2-year-old Holstein, the United States has prohibited the use in food for people of brain or spinal cord tissue from cattle over 30 months in age, which are at higher risk of the brain-wasting disease.

The misshapen protein that causes BSE can be carried in the nervous system tissues of cattle. Eating beef that contains the mad cow protein can give people a similarly rare but fatal condition, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

In addition, the Agriculture Department said that beginning in June it intends to test at least 220,000 animals for BSE. Last year it tested about 20,000 animals.

The letter and supporting documents are necessary steps for negotiating with other countries to lift their bans, said Gary Weber, director of regulatory affairs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, a trade group.

The notifications essentially tell other countries the United States essentially has done all it feels necessary to do to respond to the case, and they should not expect more major regulatory changes, Weber said.

Mexico and some other trading partners eased restrictions before DeHaven's letter. Others, such as Japan, a major export market for American beef, have kept full-scale bans in place.

Japan is demanding that the United States agree to test for BSE all 35 million cattle slaughtered each year before it will consider lifting its ban. The United States has refused.

Tadashi Sato, agricultural attache at the Japanese Embassy in Washington, was not available Friday for comment on DeHaven's letter.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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