• The Associated Press

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The United States is frustrated with Japan’s ban on U.S. beef imports but believes Tokyo is moving toward reopening its market despite consumer fears over mad cow disease, a U.S. agriculture official said Tuesday.

Chuck Lambert, U.S. deputy undersecretary of agriculture, said in an interview in Tokyo that the technical conditions for a resumption of beef imports to Japan have been met, and Washington is urging Tokyo to move faster.

“We are seeing signs of progress in the right direction,” said Lambert, who was in Tokyo this week with a U.S. delegation to make their case on the beef issue. “We still believe that progress is painfully slow.”

Japan shut its doors to U.S. beef in December 2003 after the discovery of the first American case of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Prior to the ban, Japan was U.S. beef’s most lucrative overseas market, with $1.5 billion in annual sales.

Tokyo had pressed the United States to test all cows for the disease, as Japan does. But the two sides settled on requiring testing only for cows 21 months or older, since the proteins related to the disease have not been detected in younger cows.

Japan’s food safety panel has concluded that the deal would not present a significant danger to consumers. But Tokyo says more bureaucratic steps are needed before imports can resume, refusing American calls for a fixed timetable.

There have been calls in Congress for sanctions against Japan if the ban is not lifted soon, and Lambert said that “concerns about stall and delay” were high.

The U.S. has also banned imports of Japanese beef, and Lambert said that Washington — like Tokyo — had not yet set a date for resumption of those imports.

The small U.S. market for Japanese beef is largely focused on high-priced “Kobe” beef.

“We’re moving as fast as we can, and we’re asking that they do the same,” Lambert said.

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