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WASHINGTON - Japan's decision to partially lift its 10-month-old mad cow disease-related ban on U.S. beef could restart limited imports within weeks, although full restoration of U.S. beef exports to Japan, valued at $1.4 billion annually, probably won't occur until 2005, according to the American Meat Institute.
Industry officials say that the agreement with America's largest beef export market, reached after three days of talks in Tokyo, is designed so that Japanese officials will have to ease restrictions further next year, when the country's beef-import rules are scrutinized by international animal health authorities. "I'm confident that we'll see a full restart of trade then," AMI president and c.e.o. J. Patrick Boyle told the the Wall Street Journal.
The agreement will allow importation of U.S. beef with birth records showing that the cattle were younger than 21 months of age when harvested. The Japanese insisted on the stipulation because Japan says that's the earliest that BSE has ever been detected in its own herds, though scientists around the world have questioned the accuracy of those test results because they weren't confirmed at the "gold standard" laboratory in the United Kingdom.
U.S. government officials believe that when Japan's import rules are examined by scientific groups early next year, they'll likely conclude that it is safe for Japan to import U.S. cattle that are younger than 30 months without testing them for the disease. Since the vast majority of U.S. cattle are harvested before that age, that rule would pose little problem to U.S. producers or packers.
While many meatpackers will not be able to quickly capitalize on the deal because of a lack of uniform record keeping from producers, industry officials are still hopeful that the deal will encourage other important export markets, including Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Egypt, to soon ease their bans on U.S. beef.
Japan, the largest export market for U.S. beef, has been at odds with the U.S. government over the issue of testing 100 percent of cattle for BSE. The United States has long resisted the demands, charging that they are prohibitively expensive and unreliable in detecting the disease in cattle that had not yet developed symptoms of the disease.
Agriculture Undersecretary J.B. Penn said that it would be just a "matter of weeks" before the new regulations were worked out and trade resumed.