Japanese scientists yesterday recommended lifting a two-year ban on US and Canadian beef imports imposed over mad cow disease fears in a major step to ending a bitter trade dispute between Tokyo and Washington.
The government-appointed panel indicated the imports could resume next month. It said there was little risk of mad cow disease in beef from young US and Canadian cattle if dangerous body parts were taken out.
"If these conditions are maintained, the risk is very slim," Yasuhiro Yoshikawa, chairman of the committee, told reporters.
"Those who want to buy it [North American beef] can buy it. If people don't want to buy it then they don't have to," he said.
With the green light from scientists, the only hurdles to resuming beef imports are public hearings and final government approval -- a process that takes about four weeks.
Amid polls showing that most Japanese still do not trust US beef, the farm ministry said it would try to dispel consumers' worries.
"With the panel report released, it won't take long for the government to lift the ban," said Mamoru Ishihara, administrative vice minister of the farm ministry.
"We'll try to ensure the safety of the beef, cooperating with the health ministry," Ishihara said.
Japanese leaders have already indicated they wanted to resolve the increasingly acrimonious trade dispute by the end of the year. US President George W. Bush is due to visit Japan, one of the closest US allies, in the middle of next month.
US farm-state senators have threatened retaliatory trade sanctions unless Japan, formerly the biggest importer of US beef, lifts the ban by Dec. 31.
The bill by 20 senators -- or one-fifth of the Senate -- calls on the Bush administration to slap sanctions equivalent to 3.1 billion dollars, which they said were the losses the US cattle industry suffered last year because of the ban.
Japan barred imports of US beef in December 2003 and of Canadian beef in May 2003 after cases of mad cow disease were discovered in the two countries.
The row turned bitter in October last year when Japan promised to exempt US cows aged 20 months or younger from screening if high-risk parts were removed.
Washington interpreted the agreement as a breakthrough but Tokyo said it needed more time to verify how to test the age of the cattle.
Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura told US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at a meeting this weekend in Washington that Japan wanted to solve the growing trade row "as soon as possible."
"I have an impression that we have taken too much time with our domestic procedures," Machimura said, as quoted by Kyodo News.
Public opinion, however, remains overwhelmingly opposed to letting US beef in. Some 67 percent of Japanese were against resuming US beef imports versus just 21 percent in favor, according to a recent poll by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper.
Despite the intense pressure for Japan to open up to US beef, the US maintains its own ban on Japanese beef imports, also out of health concerns.
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