The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry on Monday made an official decision to ease the mad cow restrictions on beef imports from the United States, starting Friday.
A draft ministry plan was also approved to scale down BSE testing on cattle raised in Japan by exempting cows up to 30 months old — compared with 20 months now; the lower limit of the testing threshold is 21 months.
U.S. meat taken from cattle up to 30 months old will be allowed for import versus the current limit of 20 months. The age limit was put in place to guard against the risk of contracting bovine spongiform encephalopathy, better known as mad cow disease. The brain-wasting disease is thought to be more prevalent in older cattle.
The decision was made after the Pharmaceutical Affairs and Food Sanitation Council, a government panel, approved the ministry’s draft plan to ease the BSE restrictions, which allowed Australia to supplant the U.S. as Japan’s top beef supplier following an American BSE outbreak in 2003.
Under the new limit, more than 90 percent of the beef processed in the United States will be eligible for shipment to Japan, up sharply from the current level, which is under 50 percent, ministry officials said.
Japan banned all beef imports from the United States in 2003 but resumed them in 2005 after introducing a 20-month age limit.
Agriculture ministry officials said Japan’s beef imports from the United States in fiscal 2011 totaled 120,000 tons, about one-third of their peak in fiscal 2000.
The new Japanese test exemption, also approved by the council, will take effect in April. It will reduce the proportion of Japanese cattle that must undergo BSE testing to about 40 percent, down sharply from the current level of about 90 percent.