By Associated Press Writer
updated 5/24/2005 8:12:50 AM ET 2005-05-24T12:12:50

Japan took another step toward easing a 17-month-old ban on U.S. beef imports on Tuesday when the government asked food regulators to study the feasibility of partially lifting the prohibition.

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The Agriculture and Health ministries told the Food Safety Commission to start examining whether it is safe to reopen Japan's market to American beef for the first time since the December 2003 discovery of the first U.S. case of mad cow disease, said Agriculture Ministry official Katsuhiro Saka.

The commission recommended earlier this month that the government waive mad cow disease tests for domestic cattle younger than 21 months, seen as a move to lay groundwork toward resumption of imports of beef from younger American cattle.

The commission's mad cow panel is expected to start deliberation as early as this week on whether American beef is as safe as Japanese beef, Saka said.

"We asked the panel to evaluate whether American beef products satisfy our domestic safety standards in case we resume imports," he said.

Saka did not give any timetable, but Kyodo News agency said the import ban may be lifted as early as summer.

Until its ban, Japan was U.S. beef's most lucrative overseas market, and Washington has been pressuring Tokyo to allow shipments to resume as soon as possible.

Currently, Japan tests all its cattle for the disease before slaughter, and had demanded that the United States adopt a similar system.

But Japan later agreed to lower its domestic safety standard and allow the import of meat from untested younger cows after the removal of risky parts, including the brain. Scientists believe the meat of younger cows is virtually free of the disease.

Japan has refused to set a date for lifting the import ban, saying more time is needed for the approval to work through its bureaucracy. U.S. officials have accused Tokyo of foot-dragging, and some have threatened sanctions unless the ban is lifted.

Japanese consumer groups have demanded that the government keep U.S. beef out of this country's market to ensure food safety. Japan has found 17 cows infected with mad cow since it began testing all cattle bound for the slaughterhouse.

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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