SYDNEY (Kyodo) U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso on Saturday that Japan’s re-imposition in January of an import ban on beef from U.S. cattle was an excessive reaction, Japanese officials said.

The two met in Sydney on the sidelines of the first ministerial-level security talks among Japan, the United States and Australia.

Rice urged Japan to lift the ban on U.S. beef imports at an early date, saying Japan’s re-imposition following the discovery of a backbone — a mad cow disease risk material — in a shipment of U.S. veal at a Japanese airport in January, was excessive.

Aso defended the step, saying the Japanese government is still questioning the U.S. Agriculture Department’s system for checking beef quality, the official said.

Japan re-imposed the ban on Jan. 20 after a backbone, prohibited under the bilateral accord due to risk of mad cow disease, was discovered in a veal shipment at Narita airport. Japan was the largest importer of U.S. beef before the original ban was imposed in December 2003, when the first U.S. case of mad cow disease was found.

On other issues, Aso and Rice agreed their countries will continue to work hard on finalizing a plan to realign U.S. forces in Japan by the end of March, the officials said.

Aso told reporters after the meeting that the two countries confirmed it is important to reform the U.N. Security Council.

The beef issue also became a major focus of talks Friday in Washington between two senior officials from the two countries.

Nicholas Burns, the U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, told visiting Vice Foreign Minister Shotaro Yachi that he feels a “sense of extreme urgency” about resuming imports of American beef to Japan.

As for giving a third chance to beef imports from the U.S., Yachi said Burns’ remarks “apparently reflected voices mainly in the U.S. Congress that the Japanese (safeguard) system is too strict.”

In a speech earlier in Tokyo, U.S. Ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer warned Japan that the U.S. Congress “will lose its patience and we could set off a trade war.”

Yachi said he explained to Burns that Japan is working to “establish a reliable system because the issue involves food safety.”

Noting that the United States is expected to send a mission to Japan soon, Yachi said he hopes the two nations “could work to regain confidence through technical discussions.”

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said Thursday he would dispatch an expert team at Japan’s request after Washington responds “within the next few days” to Japan’s questions about a U.S. report on the contaminated veal shipment.

In the meeting, Burns also urged Japan to quickly convince local communities opposed to the bilateral agreement on the realignment of the U.S. military presence in Japan to support the accord so that the two nations can complete their ongoing talks to craft an implementation plan.

Amid growing uncertainty about meeting the deadline for the U.S. realignment implementation plan, Yachi said he did not discuss “such details as whether to do so within March or April.”

Okinawa remains strongly opposed to a new plan to move the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station elsewhere in the prefecture, and nearly 90 percent of voters in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, recently rejected a plan to host U.S. carrier aircraft from Atsugi Naval Air Facility in Kanagawa Prefecture and more marines.

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