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WASHINGTON (Kyodo) The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Monday the partial lifting of its four-year-old import ban on Japanese beef, while welcoming Tokyo’s decision the previous day to resume imports of U.S. beef after a two-year ban.

The U.S. Meat Export Federation said the first shipment of U.S. beef will leave Denver on Saturday and arrive at Narita International Airport on Sunday, where a ceremony attended by U.S. Ambassador Thomas Schieffer will be held to mark the reopening of the Japanese market.

Washington banned imports of Japanese beef in September 2001 after an outbreak of mad cow disease in Japan, while Tokyo imposed its ban on U.S. beef in December 2003, when the first case of the disease was discovered in the United States.

The U.S. action allows imports of whole cuts of boneless beef from Japan under certain conditions, including removing potentially dangerous materials, including brains and spinal cords, and implementing mitigation as certified by a veterinary official from the Japanese government.

Japanese beef, including the much sought-after Kobe beef, accounts for only a small portion of the U.S. market. Japan, on the other hand, was the largest importer of U.S. beef before the ban was imposed, with exports to Japan totaling $1.4 billion in 2003, according to the USDA.

Earlier Monday, the government conditionally lifted the import ban on U.S. and Canadian beef from cattle aged less than 21 months in line with an agreement reached in October 2004 with the United States.

U.S. lawmakers from major beef-producing states and industry leaders welcomed the decision to resume imports, but urged the administration of President George W. Bush to press Japan to raise the age limit to the internationally recognized 30 months and to call on other Asian economies to resume imports.

“I applaud Japan’s first step,” Sen. Max Baucus, a Democrat from Montana, said.

“But we still have work to do, because Japan has decided to lift its ban only on U.S. beef from cattle 20 months or younger,” said Baucus, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee. “All U.S. beef is safe,” he added.

Sen. Wayne Allard, a Republican from Colorado, said, “For U.S. beef producers and exporters, and for Japanese consumers, this means a very happy new year.”

The two senators are among the cosponsors of a Senate bill that would have required the administration to impose economic sanctions on Japan if it had failed to lift the import ban by the end of the year.

Baucus said he will continue to “push other trading partners, like South Korea, Malaysia and Taiwan, to reopen their markets to U.S. beef.”

Jamie Willrett, chairman of the International Markets Committee at the U.S. National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said, “While the process has been lengthy, we are pleased to be on the road to regaining this valuable market for U.S. producers.

“We’re confident consumers and the Japanese government will find it goes above and beyond their expectations,” Willrett said.

Consumers in Japan, however, appear wary. According to a recent Kyodo News survey, 75.2 percent of customers surveyed said they were unwilling to eat U.S. beef.

Nevertheless, NCBA chief economist Gregg Doud was optimistic about the news, saying, “In the past, Japan was the top export market opportunity for U.S. beef. We are determined to match these levels once again.

“We . . . are now plowing straight ahead into the next steps needed to fully reopen this and all exports markets to U.S. beef, including Hong Kong, Taiwan and more.”

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