The government is inclined to change its stance on testing for mad cow disease to pave the way for resuming imports of beef from the United States, government sources said Thursday.

While all slaughtered cattle are now tested for mad cow disease, cows younger than 20 months will likely be excluded from the testing because existing test methods cannot readily detect the disease in young animals, the sources said.

The brain-wasting disease only becomes detectable when a type of protein — known as a prion — accumulates in the brain of cattle, making currently available testing measures inapplicable to young animals, according to experts.

Japan has prohibited U.S. beef imports since the first U.S. case of mad cow disease was found in a Canadian-born cow in the state of Washington in December.

To remove the import ban, Tokyo has been asking the U.S. government to test all slaughtered cattle for the disease or provide equivalent safety assurance. Washington has maintained that blanket testing is unscientific.

In the United States, some 80 percent of beef cattle are slaughtered before 20 months of age. Most U.S. beef therefore might be cleared for export to Japan if the Japanese government excludes cows younger than 20 months from the test.

There is no clear definition of young cows, but in Europe, cattle younger than 30 months are not tested because they are considered to represent little risk of infection.

But as the disease was found in a 21-month-old cow in Japan, “20 months would be the age limit to win public understanding” for ending blanket testing, one of the government sources said.

Experts and government officials from Japan and the United States held beef-related talks in Colorado in late June, during which Japanese participants acknowledged for the first time that blanket testing might not be effective.

Earlier Thursday, the government’s Food Safety Commission heard a report from participants in the Colorado meeting and no commission members expressed objection to Japan’s views expressed in the meeting.

An expert committee of the commission is expected to hold a meeting on July 16 to discuss the possibility of excluding young cattle from tests for mad cow disease, the sources said.

Based on the committee’s conclusion, the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry and the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry will work out specific measures to end blanket testing.

The Japan-U.S. row over Tokyo’s import ban on U.S. beef is likely to move toward a settlement if an end to blanket testing is confirmed in time for August’s meeting on mad cow disease between senior Japanese and U.S. government officials.

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