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WASHINGTON (Kyodo) The United States will scale down its nationwide testing program for mad cow disease to about one-tenth from as early as late August, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns announced Thursday.

The move comes at a time when Japanese government inspectors are set to conclude this weekend their monthlong safeguard audits of all U.S. meat-processing plants planning to export beef to Japan.

Japan continues to blanket test all slaughtered cattle to safeguard human consumption against the disease, medically known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

But the U.S. considers its BSE testing, which targets only a small percentage of the total cattle herd, as a tool to confirm the prevalence of the disease instead of food safety.

“It’s time that our surveillance efforts reflect what we now know is a very, very low level of BSE in the United States,” Johanns said.

The new program will sample about 40,000 animals per year, compared with more than 750,000 tested in two years from June 2004 following the discovery of its first BSE case the previous year.

Stressing that BSE surveillance “is not a food safety program,” Johanns said human health is protected by such safeguard measures as the removal of brains, spinal cords and other specified risk materials.

But a failure to remove the risk material in violation of bilaterally agreed requirements led Japan to reimpose an import ban on U.S. beef in January, only a month after the original two-year-old restriction was lifted.

Tokyo and Washington struck a deal in June that Japan will lift its reinstated import ban after inspecting all the 35 U.S. plants to confirm their safeguard compliance.

The January incident involved a backbone part in a veal shipment. It led the U.S. to recheck compliance at meatpackers and reinforce its inspection system although it maintains the failure was a “unique” case and poses no food safety problem under U.S. standards.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires removal of risk materials only from cattle 30 months old or older.

But the bilaterally agreed requirements limit imports to meat from cattle up to 20 months old with the risk materials removed prior to shipment. BSE testing is not required.

In Tokyo on Friday, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Shoichi Nakagawa said the U.S. decision to cut back on testing will not directly affect Tokyo’s decision to lift the import ban on American beef.

Still, the minister indicated he will keep demanding that the U.S. either maintain or expand the current scope of cattle inspections.

“We can’t remain silent on the matter just because the responsibility for the testing rests with the United States,” Nakagawa told reporters after a Cabinet meeting.

In the process of lifting its original ban, Tokyo eased domestic requirements to exclude cattle up to 20 months old from BSE testing to pave the way for resuming imports of U.S. and Canadian beef.

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