051008 Japan Panel to Meet; May Approve US Meat Safety

October 22, 2005

Tokyo - A Japanese government panel studying the U.S. beef import ban issue will hold a meeting on Monday in which it may finalize a report saying the risk of U.S. beef imports bringing mad-cow disease into the country is extremely low.

If such a report is formally approved by the panel, it would serve as a first step for lifting Japan's 20- month-old embargo on U.S. beef that took effect after the first case of mad-cow disease was detected on U.S. soil in late 2003.

Some local newspapers reported that the panel's adoption of the report could lead to resuming U.S beef imports as early as December.

The U.S. beef under consideration by the panel, which reports to Japan's Food Safety Commission, is meat from cows 21 months-old or younger. In the Monday session, the panel members are planning to make a final comparison of the reliability of the mad-cow inspection procedures of the U.S. and Japan, a commission official said.

If the members find that the risk of failing to detect an infected cow under the U.S. system is equal to or lower than that of Japanese inspections, they will submit a report to the commission recommending launching additional procedures required by law for scrapping the import ban, the official said.

Kyodo News, the country's largest news service, reported earlier this month that such a report is expected to be submitted to the commission by the end of October and, after a monthlong public hearing, to the health and agricultural ministries for final approval.

Scientists agree that beef infected with mad-cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, can cause a fatal brain disorder in humans. Since the 1990s, the death toll from the disease has topped 150 people, mostly in Britain.

Before the ban, Japan was the largest importer of U.S. beef. It bought about $1.4 billion worth of beef a year, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

U.S. frustration over the import ban and Tokyo's protracted examination of U.S. beef safety conditions has been building up recently. Earlier this month 20 U.S. senators sent a joint letter to U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman, formally asking "to employ retaliatory economic measures against Japan" if the import barrier is kept in place.


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