Japan will ease a ban on U.S. beef imports after a Japanese panel declared on Monday that beef from young American cattle is safe if risk materials that could transmit mad cow disease are removed, government officials said.
The panel at Japan's Food Safety Commission ended five months of discussion on the safety of U.S. beef with a conclusion that beef and beef offal from American cattle aged 20 months or younger are at very low risk from mad cow disease if specified materials, such as bovine heads and spinal cords, are removed.
"We concluded that with regard to the risk of mad cow disease, the difference between Japanese beef and meat from American cattle aged 20 months or below is very small," Yasuhiro Yoshikawa, the chairman of the subcommittee, said after compiling a report assessing the risks of U.S. beef.
It was not immediately clear when imports of U.S. beef would resume, but media reports on Monday suggested it could be in December.
The Japanese government asked the commission last May to rule on the safety of U.S. beef, and it had been waiting for a positive conclusion from the panel before it allowed beef imports to resume.
Japan imposed a ban on U.S. beef and beef products in December 2003 following the discovery of the first U.S. case of mad cow disease in Washington state.
Before the ban, Japan was the top importer of U.S. beef, with imports valued at $1.4 billion in 2003.
Japan's Vice Farm Minister Mamoru Ishihara said on Monday he welcomed the panel's report.
"We are grateful to the commission for completing the report," Ishihara told a news conference. "I respect the report as it has been presented."
However, Ishihara said he was unsure when imports of U.S. beef would resume.
U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Saxby Chambliss said last week that Japanese Ambassador Ryozo Kato told him resuming purchases of U.S. beef would involve "a four-month process" after food safety experts agreed the meat was safe.
But a senior Japanese government official said earlier this month that imports would resume promptly after the Food Safety Commission gave final approval.
The commission will now seek public comments on the panel's report for four weeks, possibly starting from Wednesday, before approval becomes final, a commission official said.
The food safety panel also said on Monday that beef and beef offal from Canadian cattle aged 20 months or less were at very low risk from mad cow disease. Japan banned imports of Canadian beef in May 2003 after the first Canadian case of mad cow disease.
In October last year, Japan agreed with the United States to resume imports of beef from cattle aged 20 months or younger, which are considered to be at low risk of mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).
The countries also agreed that specified risk materials must be removed from cattle of all ages before the meat is shipped to Japan.
But Tokyo has insisted that shipments could not resume until the Food Safety Commission declared that U.S. beef to be exported to Japan under the agreed conditions was as safe as domestic meat.
The ban has produced a rising tide of anger and frustration in the United States, where lawmakers proposed retaliatory tariffs on Japanese products if it was not lifted by mid-December.
Washington has been trying to resolve the issue ahead of a visit to Japan by President George W. Bush on Nov. 16.
Always fatal, mad cow disease is believed to be caused by malformed proteins and spread through infected feed.
Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human version of BSE, is thought to be spread by eating contaminated meat. It has caused more than 150 deaths worldwide, including one in Japan.
Japanese consumer groups, concerned about the safety of U.S. beef, have said they would launch a campaign to boycott American beef if the government decides to restart imports
Nearly 70 percent of Japanese are opposed to resuming U.S. beef while 20 percent are in favour, a poll published last week found.
(Additional reporting by Chikafumi Hodo)