Japan indicated yesterday that it would not rush to resume imports of US beef until assessing concerns about mad cow disease amid intense US pressure ahead of a visit by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
"We cannot say when at the moment" Japan will lift the ban, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda, the government spokesman, told a news conference.
He emphasized that Japan had already accepted a key US demand by agreeing not to test every cow to be slaughtered.
The stumbling point is how to test the cows' ages, with Japan saying there is not enough evidence to go ahead with methodology proposed by the US.
"The US proposals came after we reached a scientific conclusion in Japan that cows younger than 20 months old can be exempted from all-out checks," Hosoda said.
Japan used to be the biggest foreign market for US beef but shut off the multibillion-dollar trade in December 2003 after a cow slaughtered in Washington state was found to have bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease, linked to a fatal brain condition in humans.
Members of the US Congress from farm states have called for trade sanctions against Japan unless it resumes buying US beef soon.
US President George W. Bush personally urged Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, one of his key international allies, to lift the ban in a telephone call last Wednesday, a message Rice is expected to emphasize in meetings in Tokyo on Saturday.
Yasufumi Tanahashi, the state minister overseeing food safety, said the government would "watch independent debate" at the experts' panel on beef, suggesting Tokyo would not put political pressure on it before Rice's visit.