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WASHINGTON (Kyodo) Japan should swiftly relax its import trade criteria for American beef once a global animal disease watchdog awards the United States official beef-safety status, as widely anticipated, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said Thursday.

The United States is expected to receive the status at the General Assembly meeting in May of the World Organization for Animal Health, known commonly by the French acronym OIE.

“We’re expecting the OIE decision in mid-May. . . . I can’t predict when Japan may move, but they certainly know what our thoughts are here,” Johanns told reporters.

Receiving the status would allow Washington to turn up the heat on Tokyo to raise the age limit on cattle slaughtered for its beef imports to 30 months from the current 20, as it would categorize the United States as a country that can export beef regardless of cattle age.

Johanns’ comments came a day after U.S. President George W. Bush pressed Japan and South Korea to lift all mad cow disease-related restrictions and fully reopen their markets to U.S. beef imports.

Japan was the biggest foreign market for U.S. beef before the first U.S. case of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, was found in December 2003. The United States exported $1.4 billion worth of beef to Japan that year. South Korea was the third-largest foreign market for U.S. beef.

The age limit has been a point of contention between Tokyo and Washington since Japan banned U.S. beef imports after the first U.S. mad cow disease case was discovered.

The ban was lifted in December 2005 but reinstated the following month after a veal shipment from the United States that arrived at Narita airport was found to contain part of a backbone, a risk material banned under a bilateral beef trade agreement.

The ban was again removed last July after Japanese government inspectors checked the safeguard measures at meatpacking plants the United States has certified as suppliers to Japan.

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