Farm minister Yoshinobu Shimamura urged a government panel Friday to draw a conclusion quickly on whether to terminate the blanket testing for mad cow disease, in order to lift Japan’s 14-month-old import ban on U.S. beef.

“If they only hold discussions once in three weeks, it will take till early May. The U.S. side doubts whether we are handling the matter seriously,” Shimamura told a press conference.

His remarks followed news reports that 20 U.S. senators sent a letter dated Feb. 18 to Japan, threatening to pursue retaliatory economic actions if it fails to quickly lift the ban.

He said it would be “a plus for Japan’s national interests” if the country makes progress in its efforts to lift the beef import ban before the U.S. lawmakers present a bill on retaliatory actions.

The governmental Food Safety Commission has been deliberating whether to stop the blanket testing, which involves testing all slaughtered cattle for mad cow disease.

The United States has rejected Japan’s call for similar testing of U.S. cattle, saying partial testing is sufficient.

He told the Diet on Friday that the all-cattle test method is “normal in Japan, but nonsense in the world.”

In responding to a question by Kazuyoshi Akaba of the ruling coalition partner New Komeito, Shimamura pointed out that some Japanese consumers favor early resumption of U.S. beef imports.

He referred to people who formed long lines near outlets of Yoshinoya D&C Co. on Feb. 11, when the company revived its popular “gyudon” beef-on-rice dishes for one day on the first anniversary of the dish being pulled off the menu due to the beef import ban — in place since December 2003, when the U.S. discovered its first BSE case.

Japan and the U.S. agreed in July that blanket testing has technical limitations to detecting mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, in young animals because the prion — a type of protein that becomes infected — has not accumulated much in their brains.

However, there is strong opposition in Japan to stopping blanket testing, especially among consumer groups. Blanket testing was introduced in Japan after BSE was detected here in 2001.

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