Japan's food commission declared beef from young American cattle safe on Thursday, paving the way for the government to ease a two-year import ban and resolve a bitter trade tiff with its top ally. The Food Safety Commission agreed unanimously to send its conclusions to the Health and Agriculture ministries, which will make a final recommendation to the government. Media reports say the Cabinet could decide to ease the ban as soon as next Monday.
Agriculture minister Shoichi Nakagawa told reporters later Thursday the government "took the commission's conclusions seriously," but declined to comment on when the market would be reopened. A resumption of imports, to be limited to meat from cows younger than 21 months, would defuse a dispute that has nagged the two allies since Japan closed its doors to American beef in December 2003 after the first U.S. case of mad cow disease.
Commission members, however, said that the safety of American beef would depend on U.S. inspectors following strict guidelines, such as removing dangerous cow material such as brains and spinal cords. "Much of the approval is dependent on a promise between two countries," said Commission Chairman Masaaki Terada. "It's a question of trust."
Prior to the ban, Japan was the most lucrative overseas market for U.S. beef, buying US$1.4 billion (Ђ1.2 billion) worth in 2003. Cheap, tasty American beef had been especially popular in low-cost beef-and-rice restaurants.
Approval by the Food Safety Commission brings a lengthy process one step closer to completion. 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.
After protracted negotiations, the two sides decided to allow the resumption of beef from younger cows, though U.S. officials have grumbled that tests show cows under 30 months are free from infection. The food commission's deliberations have been painstaking. After an internal panel concluded that meat from younger U.S. cows posed no significant danger, the commission collected public comments through its Web site, as well as in a series of hearings around the country.
Yasuhiro Yoshikawa, head of a commission panel working on the mad cow issue, said that more than 50 percent of the comments collected in the hearings were against resumption of imports. Still, he defended the commission's findings, reports the AP. N.U.