• The Associated Press

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Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on Thursday denied that Japan is dragging its feet on a decision to lift its import ban on U.S. beef.

U.S. lawmakers have warned of possible sanctions in retaliation against Tokyo’s 15-month ban, imposed over mad cow disease fears. U.S. President George W. Bush telephoned Koizumi last week to ask him to expedite a resumption of imports, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was due in Tokyo this week to apply more pressure.

But Koizumi said Japan is not intentionally holding up the process.

The pressure “is largely America’s own issue. Japan is not deliberately delaying resumption of U.S. beef imports,” Koizumi told a Diet committee on foreign and defense affairs. “If there is a misunderstanding in the United States, we’ll have to straighten that up.”

Japan banned U.S. beef imports in December 2003 after the discovery of the first U.S. case of mad cow disease. Washington has been steadily pushing Tokyo to drop the ban, and the Food Safety Commission is considering the issue.

On Thursday, Koizumi denied Japan is stalling in a bid to protect domestic beef growers.

“We Japanese are all hoping to eat safe beef. But the safety should be judged by scientific knowledge, not a political decision,” Koizumi said. “If the beef is safe, we want to eat it, whether it is raised in America or wherever.”

Koizumi said he has explained this to Bush, and will keep trying to gain understanding during Rice’s visit. She was set to arrive Friday as part of a tour of Asia.

Japanese officials have said Japan is unlikely to tell Rice exactly when U.S. beef will be allowed back into Japan.

Japan requires testing of all beef products for the fatal, brain-wasting disease. The United States, which does not require such blanket testing, has resisted Japanese calls to adopt the policy, saying it is costly and unreliable at detecting infections in young cows.

Rice pressure urged

WASHINGTON (Kyodo) U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard sent a letter Wednesday to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, urging her to convey to Japan the growing pressure in Congress to impose sanctions if Japan fails to quickly lift its 15-month-old import ban on U.S. beef.

“It is my hope that you will express to the government of Japan, the growing unrest in the U.S. Congress over the status of beef trade,” the Republican senator from Colorado said in the letter sent ahead of Rice’s visit to Japan on Friday and Saturday.

Noting that continuation of the beef ban “could possibly result in retaliatory, economic sanctions,” Allard urged Rice to “convey this sentiment so that policymakers in Japan realize what is at stake.”

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