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The United States has agreed to Tokyo’s request that it accept Japanese inspectors at U.S. meatpacking plants, the government said Tuesday.

The step paves the way for talks on easier terms for Japanese imports of U.S. beef and avoids the beef row emerging as a major issue at the upcoming bilateral summit.

The two countries agreed that if Japan’s inspectors find no problems at U.S. meatpacking plants, it will scrap the requirement of inspecting 100 percent of boxes of beef shipped from U.S. plants, according to the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry and the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns also issued a statement acknowledging the country approved Japan’s request to conduct such inspections.

Tokyo and Washington are at odds over the U.S. stance that Japan soften conditions the two countries agreed to in December 2005 in ending Japan’s two-year-old ban on U.S. beef imports. The conditions include limiting beef to meat from cattle aged less than 20 months.

Japan has insisted that before discussing easier beef import conditions, it first needs to inspect meatpacking plants certified by the U.S. government as beef suppliers to Japan, to confirm they are complying with the current terms.

As the United States agreed to Japan’s inspections of the meatpacking plants, Japan is expected to accept Washington’s call for bilateral talks on softening its import terms if no problems are found at the facilities.

The U.S. decision came before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meets Friday with President George W. Bush at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland.

But even if the Japanese inspections go well and the two countries start talks on import conditions, the easing process may take a long time.

Washington has been calling on Japan to soften the import conditions as early as May, when the World Organization for Animal Health, known commonly by the French acronym OIE, is expected to approve U.S. beef shipments regardless of animal age.

Japan is refusing to soften the import conditions without full risk assessments by the Food Safety Commission, an independent panel of experts on food safety.

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