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A government panel could reach a conclusion later this month that cows aged up to 20 months would not require BSE testing, clearing a hurdle to lift a 15-month-old ban on U.S. beef imports to Japan, the head of the panel’s research team indicated Friday.

“The committee is coming closer to approving a revision to the (current blanket testing) measure against mad cow disease,” said Yasuhiro Yoshikawa, chairman of the prion research committee of the Food Safety Commission.

“The conclusion may come at its next meeting,” possibly later this month, he said.

Since Japan and the United States reached an agreement last October to resume imports of beef from U.S. animals aged up to 20 months, the panel of scientists has been examining whether food safety could be ensured if testing for bovine spongiform encephalopathy was not done on young animals.

Yoshikawa said the prion research subcommittee saw few additional risks, even if the young cows were excluded from the tests.

Once testing is eased, the panel will have to discuss another procedure, risk assessment of U.S. beef, before the government partially lifts the ban and allows the imports of beef from young cows.

U.S. pressure to lift the ban has been growing. Earlier this week, U.S. President George W. Bush urged Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in a phone call to promptly resume the imports.

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