updated 1/19/2005 9:36:34 AM ET 2005-01-19T14:36:34

Japanese and U.S. officials are nearing a resolution to a 13-month ban on American beef imports to Japan that could soon have U.S. beef producers regaining limited access to a billion-dollar market, a U.S. agricultural official said Wednesday.

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"We feel we have reached a mutual resolution for trade resumption... and that that resolution is close at hand," Chuck Lambert, deputy under secretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's marketing and regulatory programs, told reporters in Tokyo.

Japan banned American beef imports in December 2003 after the discovery of the first U.S. case of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy. At the time, Japan was the most lucrative overseas market for American beef, with sales exceeding $1.7 billion in 2003.

The two sides tentatively agreed late last year to resume imports of beef products from cows younger than 21 months old but later stalled over differences about how to authenticate the age of cattle.

Japan said it would only accept beef from animals with a birth record. But U.S. beef producers do not keep such records for every animal, relying instead on birth records for herds and a grading system that uses tenderness of the meat to judge age.

Lambert said experts had narrowed those differences after U.S. officials proposed a method by which a cow's age can be determined by looking at the maturity of its skeleton.

The method, though not traditionally used to determine the age of cattle, has long been used by U.S. authorities as a de facto age marker when meat is being graded and tested for the market.

With this method and other safeguards in the U.S. beef market, "we are more than adequately ensuring the Japanese consumer is not receiving product 20 months or older...and is absolutely safe," Lambert said.

Lambert said Japanese officials would consider the latest proposal and, if they accepted the method, "trade should resume." It was not clear when Japanese officials would make their decision.

BSE is a brain-wasting illness that can be fatal to humans who eat contaminated beef.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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