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Japan and the United States started two days of talks Wednesday in Tokyo to discuss terms for resuming imports of U.S. beef.

At the outset of the meeting, Michitaka Nakatomi, deputy director general of the Foreign Ministry’s Economic Affairs Bureau, expressed hope the talks will “cast aside doubts on the credibility of the bilaterally agreed system” for ensuring food safety. “We’d like to exchange frank opinions on what is needed, and have fruitful discussions,” he said.

Chuck Lambert, U.S. deputy undersecretary of agriculture for marketing and regulatory programs, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture has completed fresh inspections of 35 meatpackers certified for beef exports to Japan, and that a report on the checks shows those plants “meet requirements to sell in the Japanese market.”

“We are responding to Japan’s questions and request of information and here’s the answer to additional questions about the finding and determining how and when trade will resume,” he said.

Lambert also said an analysis of seven years of data on the prevalence of mad cow disease in the U.S. shows four to seven infected cows exist in a group of 42 million adult animals.

“This is an exceedingly low level of BSE and interlocking fire walls we have in place more than assure the food safety and herd health are being protected,” he said. BSE stands for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, the official name of the brain-wasting disease.

“U.S. beef is safe and we look forward to working with our Japanese counterparts to finalize this process so that trade can resume soon under the agreement of the United States and Japan,” Lambert said.

The meeting, the first held on the issue since late March, will let the United States explain the results of the inspections and give Tokyo a chance to ask questions about it.

The United States has recently rechecked the meatpackers’ handling of products and their compliance with bilaterally agreed export requirements to prevent mad cow disease, following a botched batch of veal exported to Japan in January.

Tokyo is expected to give the United States the results of risk communication sessions held in April with consumers and related businesses in 10 regions across the nation. Many people expressed concern over early resumption of U.S. beef imports.

Japan also is expected to ask the U.S. to let Japanese officials inspect the certified U.S. meatpacking facilities on their own, or to accompany American inspectors during snap checks planned at those beef processing companies, Japanese officials said.

If the two sides make progress on ways to prevent ineligible beef exports from recurring, Japan could decide to resume beef trade in June, when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi plans to visit the U.S., they said.

However, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Jinen Nagase said at a news conference Wednesday that the decision “will not be linked with a political schedule.”

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