U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez repeated the U.S. position Friday that American beef is safe from mad cow disease and urged Japan to lift its import ban.

“We are absolutely convinced that our beef is safe,” Gutierrez told a breakfast meeting at the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

“We have the world’s safest food supply and we just want the opportunity to demonstrate that we can deliver the best beef in the world with the right qualification and right standards as Japan requires.”

The secretary also said beef consumption per capita in the United States is among the highest in the world.

His remarks followed a two-day technical meeting in Tokyo earlier in the week to solve a bilateral row stemming from Japan’s second suspension of the beef trade.

Key Japanese ministers, however, responded negatively to U.S. calls for a quick end to the ban at separate news conferences following Friday’s Cabinet meeting.

“We have yet to lift the ban because Japan-U.S. talks concerning the matter are still in the initial stages,” Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Jiro Kawasaki said.

Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Shoichi Nakagawa dismissed U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns’ call for the ban to end before Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to the United States around late June.

Tokyo reimposed the total import ban Jan. 20 after pieces of spinal column, prohibited under a bilateral agreement, was found in a veal shipment at Narita airport.

The incident came only a month after Japan lifted a two-year-old ban on condition that imports would be limited to meat from cattle under 21 months, with brains, spinal cords and other material at high risk to contain mad cow disease removed.

Japan was the largest importer of U.S. beef before the first ban was imposed in December 2003, after the United States discovered its first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Japan has seen 24 BSE cases since 2001.

At the ACCJ breakfast meeting, Gutierrez also said Washington will launch a multimillion dollar campaign this summer to up the number of Japanese visitors to the U.S.

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