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Japan and the United States on Saturday agreed in principle to resume U.S. beef imports as early as next spring, although a final accord on specific conditions for lifting the ban was left to further negotiations.

Japan told the U.S. delegates that cows aged 20 months and younger will be exempted from testing for mad cow disease after Tokyo officially revises its blanket testing policy.

The U.S., meanwhile, offered to set up a temporary verification system — subject for review by July — so that only cows aged 20 months and younger will be shipped to Japan and that high-risk materials such as spinal cords will be removed.

The verification measures proposed by the U.S. during the talks include production records for each cow or herd.

But Japan remained opposed to the U.S. argument that experts can determine a cow’s age by checking the quality of its meat and the formation of cartilage, saying the margin of error would be too large. The two sides will continue talks on this issue at lower levels.

The two countries had already agreed to exclude cows aged 20 months or younger from blanket testing for mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalophaty.

Japan imposed the ban on U.S. beef imports after the first case of mad cow disease was found in the state of Washington 10 months ago.

The two sides also agreed to review the proposed verification system, which will be applied exclusively to U.S. beef being shipped to Japan, by next July — a clause Washington strongly insisted on including in a press statement released after the meeting.

However, the clause may backfire in Japan as criticism may grow that the government has effectively agreed to resume beef imports before the Food Safety Commission has decided formally to exempt young cows from blanket mad cow testing.

The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry needs to revise an ordinance after the commission decides to exempt cows under 20 months old from testing. The process is expected to end in the spring, after which Japan can resume U.S. beef imports.

“(The clause) indicates our expectation that the (beef imports) would have been resumed by then,” a senior Foreign Ministry official told reporters. “Common sense tells us that the ban will have been lifted by then.”

The U.S. delegation welcomed Japan’s policy shift on testing and expressed hope for an early resumption of imports.

“We think today is very important for a beginning of the resumption of trade,” J.B. Penn, U.S. undersecretary of agriculture, said at the U.S. Embassy.

“This review in July 2005 will be very important, and we hope we can eventually return to the normal trade pattern that we had before BSE was discovered,” he said.

Government sources say Washington has been eager to make progress on the issue before the presidential election on Nov. 2.

The beef industry is a key supporter of George W. Bush. Top officials at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence have instructed bureaucrats to seek an early resolution to reopen its market, the sources say.

Penn went on to say he believes Tokyo’s domestic process will be completed in “a matter of weeks,” hinting that Washington hopes the ban will be lifted after the U.S. conducts a study on a “reliable assessment” to verify a cow’s age by early December.

But the Foreign Ministry official said it has not been agreed on when the beef imports will be reopened.

Japan and the U.S. further agreed to include international experts such as officials from the World Organization for Animal Health and the World Health Organization in their joint study on bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

The Japanese negotiating team was headed by Kenichiro Sasae, chief of the Foreign Ministry’s Economic Affairs Bureau, while Penn headed the U.S. delegation.

Senior officials from the health and agriculture ministries attended the senior-level talks, which was initially expected to end Friday. The last high-level talks were held in April.

Mad cow case feared

TSU, Mie Pref. (Kyodo) Preliminary test results indicate that a 71-month-old dairy cow from a Mie Prefecture farm is suspected of having had mad cow disease, the prefectural government said Saturday.

A sample from the cow, shipped to Kyoto Prefecture, will be sent to the National Institute of Infectious Diseases in Tokyo for confirmation. The result is expected sometime after Tuesday evening.

The prefectural government called on the farm not to move its livestock until the results are confirmed.

Last week Japan confirmed its 14th case of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, in a dead Holstein from a Hokkaido farm.

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