A key advisory panel on mad cow disease called on the government Monday to ease its stance on testing of the disease in a manner that would clear the way for a resumption in imports of U.S. beef.

The ad hoc panel on bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a subcommittee of the governmental Food Safety Commission, made the recommendation on grounds that BSE cannot be detected in cows aged 20 months or younger using the current testing method, panel members said.

The recommendation effectively calls on the government to exclude beef cattle under this age from tests for the brain-wasting disease, marking a de facto U-turn from the country’s three-year-old wholesale testing regime. If the commission endorses the recommendation, the government will launch deliberations on ending the wholesale testing program, which has been in place since October 2001.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda said earlier in the day that the government will try to use the recommendation as the panel has been examining the matter from a scientific viewpoint.

Japan banned beef from the United States after the first U.S. case of mad cow disease was uncovered in December. Tokyo insisted that U.S. beef cattle be tested for BSE in the same way as cattle in Japan.

The government has thus far confirmed 11 BSE-infected cows in Japan, the youngest of which was 21 months old, and therefore believes 20 months would be the age limit to win public acceptance, government officials said.

In the U.S., about 80 percent of beef animals are slaughtered before they reach the age of 20 months. Most U.S. beef would thus become exportable to Japan if cows younger than 20 months were to be excluded from the test.

In the event of the commission’s endorsement of the recommendation, Japan and the U.S. will hold a meeting of senior government officials, possibly later this month, to discuss ways to resume U.S. beef imports, government officials said.

It is still unclear, however, if U.S. beef importing will be restarted by year’s end, as consumer groups in Japan are calling on the government to maintain the wholesale testing program, while Washington is demanding a wider scope of exclusion.

The United States, which had wanted Japan to remove beef cattle aged up to 30 months from the test, has recently said that beef cattle younger than 24 months must be excluded.

Washington has also tilted toward Japan’s demand for removing and disposing of the brains and spinal cords of all cattle, which are thought to be the most likely parts to be contaminated with BSE, to prevent them from reaching consumers.

At present, these parts of cows older than 30 months are to be removed in the U.S. But the United States is unlikely to make further concessions and accept the exclusion of cows aged 20 months or younger, sources said.

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