American and Japanese negotiators agreed Saturday to ease a 10-month-old ban on American beef exports to Japan, a deal that will reopen the U.S. beef industry's biggest overseas market to at least some products.
The agreement, which awaits final approval from Tokyo, would also allow a resumption of Japanese beef exports to the United States, banned after the discovery of Japan's first case of mad cow disease in 2001.
The announcement from the U.S. delegation leader came after three days of talks in Tokyo that focused on how strictly American producers should test their products for mad cow disease. Japan banned U.S. beef imports in December 2003 after the first U.S. case of the bovine illness was discovered.
The agreement would only allow the import of beef products from cows younger than 20 months.
J.B. Penn, the Agriculture Department's undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services, told reporters at the U.S. Embassy that the exports could begin in "a matter of weeks."
During the talks, U.S. and Japanese officials reviewed a Japanese proposal — awaiting Tokyo's final approval — to exempt younger cows from testing, Penn said. They also narrowed differences over methods to authenticate the age of cattle, he said.
Japan had demanded that all U.S. beef come only from animals with a birth record. But U.S. beef producers don't keep such records for every animal, relying instead on birth records for herds and a grading system that uses tenderness of the meat to judge age.
A joint study, which will include experts from an international agricultural organization, will show whether U.S. methods are accurate. In July 2005, officials from both sides will discuss dropping all restrictions on beef, Penn said.
"There's never been a need to identify animals 20 months or younger before ... We proposed a way to do it and we're going to be working together to verify that it does work," a second member of the U.S. delegation said on condition of anonymity.
The meetings were scheduled to end Friday after two days but they stretched to Saturday afternoon.
The two sides have been at odds over testing since the discovery of the first case of the disease in the United States last December prompted Tokyo immediately to shut its markets to American beef imports.
Japan checks all domestically bred cows entering the food chain, and had demanded that the United States adopt similar blanket testing. Washington had resisted, dismissing such testing as costly and unreliable in detecting infections among young cows.
However, Tokyo recently has been considering relaxing its testing standards. Last week, Japan's Food and Safety Commission began examining a proposal from the agriculture and health ministries to exempt young cows from testing.
The talks came as a dairy cow from western Japan tested positive for the bovine disease in preliminary tests conducted early Saturday, an official said. If confirmed, the 6-year-old cow from the Mie prefecture would be Japan's 15th animal with the fatal brain-wasting illness, known formally as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE.
Mie prefectural government official Itaru Okamoto said authorities had ordered a temporary quarantine on the farm where the cow was raised and sent samples to a state-run research center for more precise testing. Okamoto said test results could be released as early as Tuesday, but refused to provide further details.
After finding its first case of mad cow disease in 2001, Tokyo began testing every domestically slaughtered cow entering the market and banned the use of meat-and-bone meal made from ruminant animal parts.
Last week, Japan confirmed its 14th case of mad cow disease. All the infected animals found in Japan have been older than 20 months.