updated 10/5/2005 12:12:37 PM ET 2005-10-05T16:12:37

Japan moved a step closer to lifting its ban on U.S. beef imports after a food safety panel said there was little risk of mad cow disease from American beef if appropriate precautions are taken, the government’s top spokesman said Wednesday.

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Tokyo imposed a ban on American beef in 2003 after one U.S. cow tested positive for the brain-wasting ailment. U.S. officials have called the ban excessive and some lawmakers in Washington have threatened to seek sanctions on Japan if it doesn’t lift the prohibition.

Japan’s food safety panel, charged with reviewing the ban, released a preliminary report late Tuesday saying that the risk of mad cow disease entering Japan in American beef is extremely low if proper precautions are followed.

“It is not that we’ve reached a full agreement, but it gave us direction,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda said during a news conference. “Yesterday’s discussions gave us a bright outlook.”

The Japanese food safety panel is expected to finish its report and make a recommendation about the ban later this year.

Hosoda said Wednesday that it was too early to say when imports might resume and added that a verdict on trade should be based on sound science. Domestic press reports have said imports may resume as early as December.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi separately told reporters he hopes “the environment will be ready for safe beef imports.”

Japan had been the most lucrative overseas market for American beef, importing more than $1.5 billion worth in 2003. But Japanese concerns about resuming trade mounted in June, when a second U.S. case of mad cow disease was confirmed in a Texas-born cow.

Japan has found 20 cases of mad cow disease, but Japanese authorities test all beef for the disease before it is processed for human consumption. Japan agreed to waive tests for cattle under 21 months because experts say that risk of infection among cows that age is negligible.

Eating beef infected with mad cow disease is thought to cause a fatal brain disorder that has killed more than 150 people, mostly in Britain, since the 1990s.

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