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WASHINGTON (Kyodo) U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said here Tuesday that he welcomes the decision by a Japanese government panel to accept a U.S. cattle age verification method, saying it was a move toward Japan lifting its import ban on U.S. beef.

“Today’s determination by the Japanese experts is an important step toward resolving this issue between our two countries,” Johanns said in a statement. “We now call upon our Japanese colleagues to expedite the remaining process so that trade may resume.

“This action now resolves the outstanding technical issues on resuming our trade in beef,” he said.

The age verification method had remained a disputed issue since Japan and the United States reached a deal in October to resume imports as early as spring from animals with birth records indicating ages of up to 20 months.

Japan had been the largest importer of U.S. beef before it imposed the ban in December 2003 after the U.S. announced its first case of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

“Exports sales are very important to our cattle and beef industry, amounting to 10 percent of our total production,” Johanns said. “Sales to Japan alone exceeded $1.7 billion in 2003 before trade was halted.”

Johanns, who replaced Ann Veneman as agriculture secretary for President George W. Bush’s second term, has made the beef issue a priority and has repeatedly urged Japan to set a date to lift the ban.

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