- The Washington Times - Monday, March 28, 2005

TOKYO (AP) — Japan’s food safety panel yesterday ruled that relaxing domestic cattle testing standards for mad cow disease won’t put consumers at risk, raising the prospect that Tokyo will reopen its lucrative market to U.S. beef imports.

The Food Safety Commission found that tests for the fatal bovine illness on cattle 20 months or younger were unable to detect the proteins linked to the disease. Scientists think the proteins associated with mad cow disease do not accumulate in cows that young.

Japan banned U.S. beef imports in December 2003 after the discovery of the United States’ first case of mad cow disease. Washington has been pushing Tokyo to drop the ban, but Japanese officials have insisted that all imported beef come from animals tested for mad cow disease, also called bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

In Washington, a Bush administration official said yesterday’s decision is a step in the right direction but remained frustrated that the market remains closed.

“It’s a very small step,” said J.B. Penn, undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services. “But we still think the Japanese process is going far too slow, and it’s unnecessarily cumbersome. We would like to see it accelerated, and we hope that the Japanese will do that.”

The issue has caused discord between the two major trading partners, with some U.S. lawmakers threatening sanctions against Japan if the ban on beef trade isn’t lifted soon.

During her March 19 visit to Tokyo, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pressed Japan to end the costly ban. Before the ban, Japan was American beef’s most lucrative overseas market, estimated at $1.7 billion a year.

• Staff writer Jeffrey Sparshott contributed to this article.

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