Japan's food safety panel on Friday recommended waiving mad cow disease (search) tests for cattle younger than 21 months, a step that could lead to the resumption of U.S. beef imports.

Tokyo has tested all cattle since discovering its first case of the fatal bovine illness in 2001. After the United States discovered its first mad cow case in December 2003, Japan shut its market to U.S. beef and demanded that Washington also adopt blanket testing for its herds.

The food safety panel endorsed an assessment by the panel's scientific experts about the safety of a U.S. proposal exempting cows younger than 21 months from tests. The experts found that the risk of young animals becoming infected with the brain-wasting disease was infinitesimally small.

"This is an extremely satisfactory conclusion," said Yasuhiko Nakamura (search), a panel member.

The ruling allows the government to approve the resumption of American beef imports. Japan's agriculture and health ministries will now review the panel's recommendations, he said, without offering a timetable for a final decision.

The issue has caused discord between the allies and led to U.S. threats of economic sanctions. Before the ban, Japan was the most lucrative market for American beef, estimated at about $1.5 billion a year.

Consumer groups in Japan have demanded that the government continue to ban U.S. beef to ensure food safety. Japan has found 17 cows infected with mad cow since it began testing all cattle bound for the slaughterhouse.

Masaaki Terada (search), who headed the food safety panel, said 70 percent of the 1,250 letters received from the public in the past month had urged the panel to recommend maintaining blanket testing for the disease, known formally as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE.

"We strongly urge the ministries to communicate with the public over beef safety concerns," Terada said.

Eating infected beef is thought to cause variant Creutzfelt-Jakob disease (search), a fatal brain disorder that has killed more than 150 people, mostly in Britain in the 1990s.