The government on Thursday approved the resumption of U.S. beef imports, saying it will check all incoming shipments “for the time being” to make sure high-risk materials are being properly removed.

The first shipment is expected to arrive early next month.

“We want to send out a message to the public that it is safe” to eat U.S. beef, Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Jiro Kawasaki said. “But at the same time, I am aware that there are voices of concern and that is why we are opening all boxes of U.S. beef to carry out a stricter checking system.”

Japan banned U.S. beef for the second time in January after finding spinal material in a shipment of U.S. veal. Spinal cords are considered risky because they can transmit mad cow disease, the degenerative nerve disease formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

Kawasaki said Tokyo spent five months discussing preventive measures with Washington and conducted a one-month inspection of meatpacking plants in the U.S.

However, Kawasaki said that if another risky shipment of U.S. beef reaches Japanese shores, Japan will ban it again and he would probably have to resign.

“If the same thing happens again despite all the efforts we’ve put in, I am sure criticism will rise against me,” he said. “I will be held responsible for the failure.”

As part of the measures, the government will instruct the beef-processing and restaurant industries to specify the origin of beef products they sell so consumers can make informed decisions.

The Japanese inspectors initially found several problems at 15 of the 35 meatpackers they checked, but after the facilities made significant improvements, the government agreed to let 33 of them export to Japan without any conditions.

Of the remaining two, one that butchered beef for Japan in December before it was authorized to do so will be added to the authorization list on condition that the U.S. government monitors it for about two months.

The other one, which underwent a merger in June, will be added after it completes a new in-house manual for shipping beef to Japan.

New meatpacking plants will not be added to the authorization list for six months so the U.S. side can focus on monitoring the current list of facilities.

Tokyo Medical University professor Kiyotoshi Kaneko, one of the 12 members of the panel tasked with assessing U.S. beef safety, said U.S. meatpacking procedures received closer scrutiny than they did in December.

“When Japan resumed beef imports (in December), the government team only inspected 11 of the 35 facilities, which gave the impression of hastiness,” Kaneko said. “But this time they inspected all the facilities.”

However, Kaneko said the decision was merely a new starting point in the cantankerous trade issue, adding that the important thing is to continue monitoring meatpackers to make sure they comply with the terms agreed upon by Tokyo and Washington.

Eating meat contaminated with BSE has been linked with the spread of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, a rare and deadly nerve disease in humans.

In April, half the members of the Food Safety Commission’s prion committee, including Kaneko, resigned over what they considered hasty moves to restart U.S. imports.

Tokyo first closed its doors to U.S. beef in December 2003 after a Canadian-born cow in Washington state tested positive for mad cow disease. Japan resumed U.S. beef imports in December but halted them again in January when the spinal material was found.

To sell or not to sell

Restaurant and supermarket chains were split Thursday on whether to offer U.S. beef to customers after the government decided to lift its ban on U.S. beef.

Yoshinoya D&C Co., operator of the popular “gyudon” beef bowl chain, welcomed the decision and asked customers to wait for a couple of months for their favorite dishes to return.

Yoshinoya spokeswoman Yukiko Abe said initial supplies are likely to be limited.

In contrast, many supermarket chains said they have no plans to sell U.S. beef for the time being.

“We do not plan to sell U.S. beef when customers at our stores are still feeling uneasy,” said Mayumi Ito, spokeswoman for supermarket chain Ito-Yokado Co.

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