updated 5/12/2005 8:35:51 AM ET 2005-05-12T12:35:51

Lawmakers from Japan's ruling party endorsed a plan Thursday for food regulators to consider lifting the country's costly ban on American beef imports, an official said.

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A committee of the Liberal Democratic Party met with officials from the Agriculture and Health ministries to discuss the plan, a step toward renewing shipments of U.S. beef products, according to Hideshi Michino, a Health Ministry official.

The Food Safety Commission last week recommended that the government waive mad cow disease tests for domestic cattle younger than 21 months, a move that would open the door to imports of beef from younger American cattle.

Japan barred American beef imports in December 2003 after the discovery of the first U.S. case of mad cow disease. The human variant of the fatal illness is believed linked to eating infected meat.

Michino said the government could ask the Food Safety Commission as soon as the end of this month to start deliberations on whether American beef is as safe as Japanese beef. The government, however, wants to collect public comment on its plan before going ahead.

The import ban closed U.S. beef's most lucrative overseas market, and Washington has been pressuring Tokyo to allow shipments to resume.

Japan tests all its cattle for the disease before slaughter, and had demanded that the United States implement a similar system. But Japan later agreed to allow the import of meat from untested younger cows, which are considered virtually free of the disease.

Japan, however, has refused to set a date for resumption of shipments, saying more time is needed for the approval process to work through the bureaucracy. American officials have accused Tokyo of foot-dragging, and some have proposed imposing sanctions unless the ban is lifted.

The Japanese government will start seeking comments from consumers and industries about U.S. beef imports starting Friday, continuing until May 20.

Japanese consumer groups have demanded the government keep U.S. beef banned to ensure food safety. Japan has found 17 cows infected with mad cow since it began testing all cattle bound for the slaughterhouse.

On Monday, a cow in northern Japan tested positive for the disease in a preliminary test, and its samples are being sent to university laboratories to try to confirm the infection.

Eating infected beef is thought to cause the human variant, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a fatal brain disorder that has killed more than 150 people, mostly in Britain in the 1990s.

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

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