Tokyo may resume US beef imports despite problems

AP , TOKYO

Wed, Jul 26, 2006 - Page 5

Japan is preparing to approve a resumption of imports of US beef this week, officials said yesterday, despite a report that Japanese inspectors found problems at some US meat processing plants.

Officials from Japan's agriculture and health ministries are expected to decide soon, possibly when the Food Safety Commission meets tomorrow, on whether to allow US beef back into Japan.

But Japanese inspectors who toured US meat processing facilities have found compliance problems "at one or two facilities," the Yomiuri newspaper reported yesterday, citing unidentified health ministry officials.

The inspectors returned on Sunday after a month touring 35 US meat processing facilities to find out if they meet Japanese guidelines.

Japan banned US beef earlier this year amid concerns about mad cow disease, but agreed in principle to resume imports last month on the condition that Japanese inspectors found no problems at US plants.

Experts are currently examining the inspection results and details cannot yet be disclosed, health ministry official Kenichi Watanabe said.

He said Japanese officials had not decided what to do if any problems were found at the US plants.

Japan lifted an earlier ban on US beef late last year, but reimposed it in January after inspectors found a shipment containing banned animal parts.

Health and agriculture officials were compiling a report on the inspections, and the government was expected to announce which facilities had been approved to provide beef for the Japanese market.

A ruling Liberal Democratic Party beef panel is scheduled to meet today and the Food Safety Commission members were scheduled to gather for a regular meeting tomorrow to discuss the report.

"We cannot delay a decision for no reason," agriculture ministry official Hiroaki Ogura said.

Tokyo has faced growing pressure from Washington to reopen its beef market.

Japan was a huge consumer of US beef before 2003, when it imposed an import ban over concerns about possible mad cow disease -- formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE -- among US cattle.