Japan’s food council on Friday relaxed its restrictions on U.S. beef imports, giving the Obama administration a significant victory in its effort to double overall exports by the end of next year.

The Asian nation had banned banned U.S. beef entirely between 2003 and 2006 after a single cow in Washington state was found to have bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as “mad cow disease.”

The illness is fatal to cattle and can cause a deadly brain disease in humans, although the World Health Organization has said that drinking milk from contaminated animals cannot infect humans.

Daniel Acker/Bloomberg (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)

Japan, one of the biggest purchasers of U.S. beef, imposed strict safety standards before resuming imports of the product, requiring exporters to remove brain tissue, spinal columns and other parts linked to mad cow disease.

The nation’s food council also disallowed beef from cattle older than 20 months because younger cows are thought to have less risk of carrying the illness. On Friday, Japan reverted back to the industry standard of allowing cattle up to 30 months old.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that the change will result in hundreds of millions of dollars in exports of U.S. beef to the Asian nation in coming years. But ranchers are still grappling with challenges that have plagued them for about six or so years, including rising feed prices and parched grazing lands.

U.S. beef producers hope to restore Japanese sales to 2003 levels, when Japan bought more than 900 million pounds of beef and ranked as the country’s largest customer, according to the Associated Press.

The loosening of Japanese regulations on Friday could increase the price Americans pay for beef, the AP said.

President Obama announced his intention to double U.S. exports by 2014 during his 2010 State of the Union address.

On Friday, the USDA announced that the agency resolved dozens of export issues last year, freeing up an estimated $4 billion in U.S. agricultural and forestry exports.

“These efforts have resulted in the most successful period in the history for American agriculture and a boon for America’s rural economies and agriculture-related businesses,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a news release.

The USDA said its accomplishments for 2012 included negotiating the release of about $100 million worth of U.S. shipments detained in foreign nations, establishing the resumption of log exports from Virginia and South Carolina to China, working with Mexico to remove a 16-percent tax on dehydrated U.S. cranberries and engaging with India to halt a measure that could have blocked U.S. apple and pear exports to the country.


E-mail federalworker@washpost.com with news tips and other suggestions.

For more federal news, visit The Federal Eye, The Fed Page and Post Politics.

Follow Josh Hicks on Twitter or subscribe his Facebook page.

Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.