TOKYO – Japan's food commission Thursday declared American beef as safe as its own, paving the way for the government to ease a two-year ban and resolve a bitter trade dispute with its top ally.
The Food Safety Commission agreed unanimously to send its conclusions to the Health and Agriculture ministries, which will make a final recommendation to the government. Media reports say the Cabinet could decide to ease the ban on U.S. beef as soon as Dec. 12.
A resumption of imports — to be limited to meat from cows younger than 21 months — would defuse a dispute that has nagged the two allies since Japan closed its doors to American beef in December 2003 after the first U.S. case of mad cow disease.
Commission members, however, said that the safety of American beef would depend on U.S. inspectors following strict guidelines, such as removing dangerous cow material such as brains and spinal cords.
"Much of the approval is dependent on a promise between two countries," said Commission Chairman Masaaki Terada. "It's a question of trust."
The report also found beef from younger Canadian cows safe.
Both the Asahi and Nikkei newspapers said Wednesday that U.S. beef could reach Japanese consumers before the year's end if the ban is speedily removed.
Prior to the ban, Japan was the most lucrative overseas market for U.S. beef, buying $1.4 billion worth in 2003. Cheap, tasty American beef had been especially popular in low-cost beef-and-rice restaurants.
Approval by the Food Safety Commission brings a lengthy process one step closer to completion.
Japan has tested every domestic cow since its first case of mad cow disease in 2002, and initially demanded that the United States do the same. Japan has found 20 domestic cases of the disease so far.
U.S. authorities, however, balked at the cost of testing the huge American herd and argued that it was not scientifically necessary.
After protracted negotiations, the two sides decided to allow the resumption of beef from younger cows, though American officials have grumbled that tests show cows under 30 months are free from infection.
The food commission's deliberations have been painstaking. After an internal panel concluded that meat from younger U.S. cows posed no significant danger, the commission collected public comments through its Web site, as well as in a series of hearings around the country.
Yasuhiro Yoshikawa, head of a commission panel working on the mad cow issue, said that more than 50 percent of the comments collected in the hearings were against resumption of imports. Still, he defended the commission's findings.
"The issues raised in the public hearings were all adequately debated within the prion research committee," he said. "I believe that as specialists, we took enough time to analyze these issues."
Under the eased guidelines, some 5 million American cows and 700,000 Canadian cows can be proven to be under 21 months old, the commission said.
The move comes after a series of American officials — including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — expressed growing impatience with the slow progress. The issue came up when President Bush visited last month.
A group of 21 U.S. senators introduced legislation Oct. 26 that would force Bush to impose tariffs on Japan if it does not lift the ban.
But even if the ban is eased, it is uncertain when finicky Japanese consumers will be ready to dig into American steaks.
A survey this week by Kyodo News agency showed three-fourths of respondents said they would be unwilling to eat U.S. beef because of mad cow fears, compared with about 21 percent who said they would consume it.
Eating beef from cattle infected with mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, can cause a fatal brain disorder in humans.