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Japan to resume some U.S. beef imports

U.S. and Japanese negotiators agreed on Saturday to ease a 10-month-old ban on American beef exports to Japan.
/ Source: The Associated Press

American and Japanese negotiators agreed Saturday to ease a 10-month-old ban on American beef exports to Japan, a deal that will reopen the U.S. beef industry’s biggest overseas market to at least some products.

The agreement, which awaits final approval from Tokyo, would also allow a resumption of Japanese beef exports to the United States, banned after the discovery of Japan’s first case of mad cow disease in 2001.

The announcement from the U.S. delegation leader came after three days of talks in Tokyo that focused on how strictly American producers should test their products for mad cow disease. Japan banned U.S. beef imports in December 2003 after the first U.S. case of the bovine illness was discovered.

The agreement would only allow the import of beef products from cows younger than 20-months-old.

Exports could start in 'a matter of weeks'
J.B. Penn, the Agriculture Department’s undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services, told reporters at the U.S. Embassy that the exports could begin in “a matter of weeks.”

During the talks, U.S. and Japanese officials reviewed a Japanese proposal to exempt younger cows from testing. They also discussed methods to confirm the age of cattle, including using dental and birth records, the official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

But dental checks have rarely been used on animals so young, and the two sides have yet to agree on details, he said. Public broadcaster NHK said Japan has demanded more precise methods for determining age.

“There’s never been a need to identify animals 20 months or younger before ... We proposed a way to do it and we’re going to be working together to verify that it does work,” a second member of the U.S. delegation told The AP on condition of anonymity.

He said Tokyo and Washington would hold future meetings.

Japan’s Foreign Ministry declined comment.

The meetings were scheduled to end Friday after two days but they stretched to Saturday afternoon.

Concern over mad cow disease
The two sides have been at odds over testing since the discovery of the first case of the disease in the United States last December prompted Tokyo immediately to shut its markets to American beef imports.

Japan checks all domestically bred cows entering the food chain, and had demanded that the United States adopt similar blanket testing. Washington had resisted, dismissing such testing as costly and unreliable in detecting infections among young cows.

However, Tokyo recently has been considering relaxing its testing standards. Last week, Japan’s Food and Safety Commission began examining a proposal from the agriculture and health ministries to exempt young cows from testing.

The talks came as a dairy cow from western Japan tested positive for the bovine disease in preliminary tests conducted early Saturday, an official said. If confirmed, the 6-year-old cow from the Mie prefecture would be Japan’s 15th animal with the fatal brain-wasting illness, known formally as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE.

Mie prefectural government official Itaru Okamoto said authorities had ordered a temporary quarantine on the farm where the cow was raised and sent samples to a state-run research center for more precise testing. Okamoto said test results could be released as early as Tuesday, but refused to provide further details.

After finding its first case of mad cow disease in 2001, Tokyo began testing every domestically slaughtered cow entering the market and banned the use of meat-and-bone meal made from ruminant animal parts.

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