updated 9/9/2004 9:15:02 AM ET 2004-09-09T13:15:02

Japan should stop testing cows younger than 20 months for mad cow disease, a top government food safety panel said Thursday, clearing the way for Tokyo to lift its nine-month ban on U.S. beef imports.

Japan has been demanding that the United States test all cows going to market as a condition for ending a ban on American beef imposed after the United States reported its first case of mad cow disease. Washington says the disease cannot be detected in younger cows and testing them should not be required.

The Cabinet's Food Safety Commission concluded Thursday that current testing technology isn't sensitive enough to detect the bovine illness in cows younger than 20 months.

Excluding the young and newborn cattle from testing "won't increase the risk" of transmission to human, the commission wrote in its mid-term report.

No cases of infections in animals younger than 20 months have been found, the commission said. The disease is formally called bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE.

Eating beef from a diseased cow is believed to cause the fatal human variant of the disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Before the ban, imposed last December, Japan was the most lucrative market for American beef. Thirty percent of all beef consumed in Japan came from the United States. Japan has a ban on beef imports from 24 countries.

Agriculture and health ministry officials will review the blanket testing system soon, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda told reporters.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is expected to discuss the ban with President Bush when they attend the Sept. 21-22 United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Japan has confirmed a total of 11 cases of the fatal brain-wasting illness, including a 21-month-old cow and a 23-month-old cow. Since tests on all cows slaughtered for food began in 2001, Tokyo has tested 3.5 million cows.

The commissin's report endorsed the recommendations of experts who reached a similar conclusion on Monday. The commission will issue a final report after hosting public discussions next week.

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 This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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