Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) raised the issue of Japan lifting completely a ban on imports of U.S. beef while meeting Saturday with her Japanese counterpart.

Rice met with Nobutaka Machimura (search) for bilateral talks. The Japanese understood U.S. concerns and were trying to accelerate procedures "and made a commitment the issue would be resolved," said a State Department official who attended the meeting and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Hatushisa Takashima, the Japanese foreign ministry spokesman, said beef imports came up in the talks and that Japan would make an effort to meet U.S. requests.

Japan imposed a ban on U.S. beef imports in December 2003 after the United States discovered its first case of fatal brain-wasting mad cow disease (search), known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE, in a Washington state Holstein.

Earlier this month a Japanese government panel took a step toward partially lifting the ban, but the decision still has to be approved by the government.

The panel recommended that Japan begin importing U.S grade A40 beef, which comes primarily from cattle aged 12 to 17 months.

Although the panel's decision was welcomed by the U.S. government as an important step toward resuming trade, Japanese consumer organizations criticized the move, saying it was politically motivated.

Before the bank, Japan was the most lucrative overseas market for U.S. beef producers, buying $1.7 billion in beef in 2003.

The two sides tentatively agreed late last year to resume imports of beef products from cows younger than 21 months. Talks later stalled over how to authenticate the age of cattle.