WASHINGTON (Kyodo) Two influential U.S. senators said Monday they hope Japan will make some “positive announcement” toward lifting its 15-month-old import ban on U.S. beef when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visits Japan this week.

Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and ranking member Max Baucus expressed the hope at a news conference after meeting with Japanese Ambassador to the U.S. Ryozo Kato to call for the quick lifting of the ban to prevent it from leading the U.S. to consider imposing economic sanctions.

Kato told reporters separately that he reiterated that Tokyo cannot set a timetable because it is waiting for the outcome of ongoing deliberations by the independent Food Safety Commission on whether to resume imports of U.S. beef. In Tokyo on Tuesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda repeated this stance.

Noting that Rice will raise the beef issue during her visit Friday and Saturday, Baucus, D-Mont., said: “It would be good faith, very good for our relationship, if at that point the country of Japan were to be able to make a positive announcement with respect to this issue. It would be the only appropriate thing to do.”

Grassley, R-Iowa, said, “It would be very good for our relationship . . . to be done there at that high level.”

It was the second time in four days for Kato to be summoned by U.S. lawmakers, underlining the growing concern in Congress about the Japanese import ban as well as growing political pressure ahead of Rice’s visit.

In Monday’s meeting at a Senate office building, the seven participating senators did not threaten Japan with retaliation but stressed the need to resolve the issue quickly in view of growing calls among lawmakers and in the U.S. beef industry to consider sanctions, Grassley and Baucus said.

Baucus said: “We didn’t make any threat of retaliation. But it is important to know that we want this result quickly, and if it is not resolved quickly, there will be consequences.”

Grassley said: “To be realistic about it, there are interests in the United States that there should be retaliation. So we are hearing that. But we not suggesting that.”

Kato said it would be “extremely unfortunate” if the beef issue led to U.S. retaliatory economic sanctions.

The independent commission is studying if there are scientific grounds to exclude animals aged 20 months or younger from the domestic blanket testing of all slaughtered cattle for mad cow disease. That would pave the way for Japan to partially resume imports of U.S. beef from such animals as agreed bilaterally in October.

Deadline for panel

The government might ask a panel of experts to give advice on conditions for lifting the import ban on U.S. beef by a certain date, according to government officials.

The Food Safety Commission has spent five months examining the risks of easing domestic measures against mad cow disease. Specifically, it is examining whether cows aged up to 20 months can be excluded from testing.

It is expected to issue a decision by the end of the month. But the government will have to ask it separately to recommend conditions for resuming U.S. beef imports.

The move comes at a time when the U.S. is stepping up pressure on Tokyo to show a time frame for lifting the nearly 15-month import embargo.

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