U.S. meatpackers are shipping beef to Japan again and the first batch is expected to arrive in Tokyo by air Sunday, industry officials said Friday.

The beef will reach Japanese importers around next week, after going through customs, they said.

The shipments will be the first to arrive since the government decided in late July to lift its import ban, which was imposed to prevent the potential spread of mad cow disease.

The first shipment, however, is expected to be modest and intensely scrutinized.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said it has approved a batch of beef exports totaling some 25,000 pounds (about 11.3 tons) for sale in the Japanese market, according to a report Thursday by Dow Jones news service.

But it might take until mid-August or so for American beef to become more widely available to restaurants, retailers and consumers, the industry officials say.

Japan prohibited imports of American beef for two years after the first case of mad cow disease, a degenerative nerve disease formally called bovine spongiform encephalopathy, was discovered in the United States in December 2003. The disease has been linked to the fatal human variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

The ban was lifted last December but reinstated after a veal shipment from the United States in January was found to contain backbone, which is prohibited under a bilateral agreement on beef trade.

After heavy negotiations, Japan lifted the ban on July 27 after Japanese government inspectors checked 35 meatpacking plants certified by Washington as suppliers to Japan. The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry and the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry gave the green light to resuming beef imports from all but one of the 35 meat plants, but the results of the inspections have not been released to the public.

Tokyo agreed to restart beef trade with the U.S. on condition that the U.S. Department of Agriculture conduct occasional, surprise inspections at the U.S. meatpackers and that all boxes containing U.S. beef be opened for quality checks for a limited time in Japan.

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