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Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Chikara Sakaguchi voiced caution Friday about a possible end to blanket tests for mad cow disease in Japan, saying a policy change of this kind needs to be based on scientific grounds.

Sakaguchi, who introduced testing on all slaughtered cattle in 2001 in the wake of the first outbreak of the disease in the country, told a news conference: “We have to think about people’s feeling as well as scientific issues. We will examine whether we can provide data that reassure consumers.

“I made a decision on (introducing) the blanket testing. I am opposed to a hasty review.”

The issue of whether to halt blanket testing is a major sticking point in talks between Japan and the United States aimed at lifting Tokyo’s ban on American beef imports.

Government sources said a panel in the Cabinet Office’s Food Commission plans to allow young cows to be excluded from blanket tests. But the panel postponed making a decision during its meeting Friday, saying it needed more time to discuss the matter.

As the brain-wasting disease becomes detectable when a type of protein known as prion is accumulated in the brain to a certain degree, current testing methods are inapplicable to young animals.

Based on the panel’s conclusions, the health ministry and the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry are expected to hammer out specific measures to end blanket testing for the brain-wasting disease.

But the panel will not provide any specific definition of young cows, leaving the decision up to the government, the sources said.

Sakaguchi did not give a view on the definition, saying only, “I hope experts will carefully study the timing of the disease’s development.”

He also said the ministry will consult with the farm ministry on the matter.

The minister said he decided to launch blanket testing in October 2001 because a system designed to monitor individual cows had not been established in Japan at that time and it was difficult to determine their ages.

The panel’s move came ahead of beef talks scheduled to be held in Tokyo later this month between experts and government officials from Japan and the United States.

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

Tokyo has demanded that Washington test all slaughtered cattle for the disease or provide equivalent safety assurances before U.S. beef imports can be resumed.

Washington has rejected this demand, claiming that blanket testing is unscientific.

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