Japan's food commission planned Monday to hold the first in a series of public meetings on the safety of U.S. beef, part of a process that could lead to a resumption of imports of American beef products by the end of this year.
The meetings will focus on a report, approved by a Food Safety Commission panel on Nov. 2, that found little difference in the risk of infection from mad cow disease between U.S. and Japanese beef.
Japan banned imports of U.S. beef in December 2003 after the discovery of mad cow disease in Washington state. Prior to the ban, Japan was the largest overseas market for U.S. beef, and Washington has been pushing for a quick resumption of imports.
The seven public meetings at locations around the country are a way that citizens can make their views known, commission spokesman Setsuo Ohtsu said.
"Scientifically, our panel found the risk from U.S. beef to be the same, but we need to explain the report and hear what the public has to say," Ohtsu said.
Japanese have been wary of American beef, with recent polls showing that nearly 70 percent opposed lifting the ban.
Japan has tested every domestic cow since its first case of mad cow disease in 2002, and initially demanded that the United States do the same. Japan has found 20 domestic cases of the disease so far.
U.S. authorities, however, balked at the cost of testing the huge American herd and argued that it was not scientifically necessary.
Japan and the U.S. now have a basic agreement for Japan to resume imports of cows under 21 months, which will not have to be tested because mad cow disease has never been found in cows that young.
At the public meetings, a representative from the mad cow disease panel will be on hand to explain its findings, Ohtsu said. Food safety experts and representatives from the import, restaurant, and livestock industries will then have a chance to discuss the report, with the floor open to questions and comments from members of the audience.
The Food Safety Commission has also been accepting comments on the report through its Internet site. Approximately 250 messages were received during the week of Nov. 7-11, Ohtsu said, reports the AP. I.L.