• The Associated Press

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U.S. beef went on sale Wednesday for the first time since the lifting of a ban imposed in January over mad cow disease, officials from the stores selling the meat said.

Inspectors Tuesday opened the way for sales of U.S. beef to resume in the lucrative Japanese market by clearing a 5.1-ton shipment imported from U.S. agricultural giant Cargill Inc.

Costco Japan, the Japanese unit of the American retailer, began selling the beef at three of its Tokyo-area stores Wednesday, store officials said on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to talk to the media.

The start of sales at the company’s two other stores, located in western Japan, has been delayed until after Thursday due to transportation difficulties caused by an approaching typhoon, Kyodo News reported.

The shipment was the first imported from the U.S. since Tokyo announced on July 27 that it would ease its latest ban on U.S. beef.

All U.S. beef shipped to Japan must come from cattle aged 20 months or younger, and no brain or spinal material can be included because it is considered at risk of carrying mad cow disease.

Japan initially banned imports of American beef in December 2003 after the first case of mad cow disease in the United States. That ban was eased last December but was reimposed after prohibited spinal bones were found in a shipment of veal in January.

Japan was the largest market for U.S. beef before December 2003, importing about $1.4 billion worth a year.

However, concerns over mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, have severely damaged Japanese faith in the safety of the imports.

Recent public polls have showed that a majority of consumers are planning to stay away from U.S. beef, and major restaurants and supermarkets have said they have no immediate plans to sell it.

Mad cow is a brain degenerative disease in cattle. In humans, eating meat contaminated with BSE is linked to the deadly variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

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