Japanese inspectors found no problems at US meatpacking facilities

Japan will no longer check all American beef shipments for it has found no safety problems at the dozens of U.S. meatpacking facilities last month, the Government said Wednesday.

The two countries are expected to hold talks aimed at easing restrictions on U.S. beef imports as early as this month, news reports said.

Japanese officials found no problems while inspecting 28 meatpacking plants in 14 U.S. states in May, the government said in a report released Wednesday.

Given the clean results, inspectors will no longer check all boxes of U.S. beef as they arrive in Japan, the report said.

The inspectors were making sure that the plants all complied with restrictions imposed by Japan because of mad cow disease fears.

Japan only allows imports of U.S. beef from cattle not more than 20 months old, because the disease has not been detected in meat from young cattle - although the U.S. has called for that restriction to be eased.

Japan's Agriculture Minister Norihiko Akagi will likely meet U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns in Germany next week to discuss launching negotiations aimed at easing the restrictions, Kyodo News agency reported.

Agriculture Ministry official Toshio Katagai could not confirm that meeting would take place, saying nothing has been decided about bilateral talks.

Japan banned American beef imports in December 2003 after the first case of mad cow disease - or bovine spongiform encephalopathy - was found in the U.S.

The ban was eased in December 2005, but tightened again the following month after prohibited spinal bones were found in a veal shipment.

Tokyo eased the restrictions again last July, but allowed only meat from cows 20 months old or younger to enter Japan. Japan also bans meat with certain bone or spinal material attached.

In May, the World Organization for Animal Health ruled that the United States was a "controlled risk nation" - all countries that can export beef irrespective of the animal's age. The U.S. has cited that report in urging Japan to review its policy. Japan said in May that it had no immediate plans to relax its restrictions on U.S. beef imports despite that ruling.