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Japan, U.S. discuss beef-imports ban

Japanese and U.S. officials entered a second day of talks Friday aimed at lifting Japan's 10-month-old ban on American beef imports, focusing on how stringently producers should test their cattle for mad cow disease.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Japanese and U.S. officials decided Friday to extend their talks on ending Tokyo’s 10-month-old ban on U.S. beef imports after failing to reach an accord, an official said.

Officials will continue negotiating on Saturday, said Mitsue Asari, a spokeswoman for Japan’s Foreign Ministry. They had been due to wrap up two days of discussions on Friday.

The talks have focused on how stringently U.S. producers should test their cattle for mad cow disease. They also come as Japan’s top food safety commission began reviewing a proposal to relax the government’s testing requirements for the fatal bovine illness for younger cows as urged by the United States.

Japan banned all U.S. beef imports following the first case of mad cow disease in the United States in December 2003. Tokyo has demanded that Washington test all U.S.-bred cows for the illness as a condition for resuming trade, but U.S. officials have said such testing would be costly and ineffective.

The officials are believed to be discussing a Japanese plan, still awaiting final approval, to exempt cows younger than 20 months from testing.

On Thursday, the first of two days of meetings, the two sides asserted respective views in heated talks but could not reach any agreement, Agriculture Ministry official Hiroaki Ogura said. He refused to elaborate.

The officials last met in April, but scientific teams from both sides have been meeting regularly and visiting slaughterhouses and testing facilities in both countries.

Japan’s agriculture and health ministries last week submitted the plan for cows younger than 20 months to be exempt from testing to the government’s Food and Safety Commission, which met Thursday to discuss it.

If approved, the plan could allow Japan to ease the ban and start importing young cows from the United States.

Japanese officials are being led by the director general of the Foreign Ministry’s economic affairs bureau, Kenichiro Sasae, and J.B. Penn, the Agriculture Department’s undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services, is leading the U.S. delegation.

Generally, a commission approval takes about two months, Ogura said.

Tokyo has tested every domestically slaughtered cow entering the market since 2001, following the first discovery in Japan of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, and banned the use of meat-and-bone meal made from ruminant animal parts.

However, experts say infections among young cows are extremely rare and that testing methods for them aren’t reliable.

Last week, Japan confirmed its 14th case of mad cow disease. All of the infected animals found in Japan have been older than 20 months.