A Japanese food safety panel said the risk of mad cow disease entering the country through imported U.S. beef is very low, removing one of the final barriers to resuming beef imports and to ending a 22-month dispute between Tokyo and Washington.
The recommendation sets in motion actions that could mean American beef imports will resume before the end of the year. The panel's report comes ahead of a visit to Japan by President Bush, who is scheduled to arrive on Nov. 15. An end to the beef dispute would eliminate an irritant to the generally warm relations between the two nations.
The panel specified that beef from U.S. cows age 20 months and younger bore little risk of infection from bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, which destroys the brains and nervous systems of cows. It also called for high-risk cow parts, such as brains and spines, to be excluded from imports.
Japan, once the biggest importer of U.S. beef, instituted its ban in December 2003 after a cow infected with BSE was discovered in Washington state.
American ranchers said the ban has cost them billions of dollars in lost sales. It also has been criticized at the highest levels of the U.S. government, which has expressed frustration at Japan's slow movement to resolve the issue.
Last week, a group of U.S. senators threatened import tariffs of more than $3 billion on Japanese products if Tokyo didn't lift the ban. That move followed a vote by senators to retain a ban on Japanese beef until Japan lifts its restrictions on American beef. That was largely symbolic because the United States imports only a small amount of Japanese beef.
Before Japan's ban was instituted, the country bought more than $1 billion worth of beef from the United States each year. Japan imported $1.2 billion -- more than 37 percent of all U.S. beef exports -- in 2003, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation. That same year, South Korea, which also has banned U.S. beef, was the second-largest importer, buying $751 million of U.S. exports.
A South Korean official said the government is considering whether to lift its ban. Other Asian countries have banned U.S. beef imports, but their markets aren't as large. China bought $9 million in 2003, less than 0.5 percent of American exports. Beijing has no plans to lift its import restriction, a government official said.
The Japanese panel's recommendation comes after months of wrangling between the United States and Japan over safety standards. Japan tests all cows for the disease, a requirement it wanted extended to U.S. beef. The disease has never been found in cows younger than 21 months.
The recommendation must still pass several procedural hurdles.
Japan's Food Safety Commission will hold a month of public hearings, after which the report will go to the health and agriculture ministries. Government officials have previously indicated they would accept the panel's recommendation.
Mad cow disease is believed to be transmitted through cattle feed containing the ground-up remains of infected cows. The disease causes rapid deterioration of the brain and nervous system.
Eating meat from cows infected with BSE is believed to cause in humans a variant form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a fatal and incurable illness. The disease has killed more than 150 people to date.
Leika Kihara in Tokyo, Ellen Zhu in Shanghai and Lina Yoon in Seoul contributed to this report.