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The Food Safety Commission’s apparent change of heart over the testing regimen for mad cow disease suggests Japan may be closer to resuming beef imports from the United States, though the two sides remain apart.

In accordance with a report last week from the commission, which operates under the Cabinet Office, the government of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi plans to offer to exclude slaughtered beef cattle aged 20 months or younger from bovine spongiform encephalopathy screening tests in the United States, official sources said.

Before talks between Koizumi and President George W. Bush in New York on Sept. 21, both governments will try to make progress on the issue, but this could be difficult as the U.S. side wants to see more cows excluded from screening.

“Japan and the United States are unable to narrow their differences,” a source close to the negotiations said.

In telephone talks with a Foreign Ministry official in late August, a U.S. Agriculture Department official said the final U.S. position is to seek the exclusion of cattle aged 24 months or under from screening tests.

This represents a major compromise by the United States, which had insisted that no screening is necessary for cattle up to 30 months.

Washington also pledged to remove dangerous parts, including brains and spinal cords, from beef to be exported to Japan, regardless of their age.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman told those around her on Aug. 26 that Japan will not demand that all beef cattle be screened, exhibiting her confidence that the compromise will pave the way for the resumption of the beef trade between the two countries.

However, Japanese consumer groups have reacted negatively to the Food Safety Commission offer to ease testing, saying all beef should be screened.

Outside experts have also questioned the proposal. “Cattle that test positive at 21 months might also have tested positive at 19 months,” reckoned Shinichi Fukuoka, a professor at Aoyama Gakuin University.

Japan banned U.S. beef in December after the first BSE case in the United States was confirmed. It has since insisted that U.S. cattle slaughtered for beef be subject to blanket testing in the same way as slaughtered cattle in Japan.

At recent bilateral unofficial negotiations, a Japanese official asked the U.S. side why Washington could not agree to set the minimum age at 20 months, although the U.S. has compromised at 24 months, angering U.S. officials present, official sources said.

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