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Japan has formally agreed with Hong Kong to resume beef shipments for the first time in over five years after they were banned because of mad cow disease, the Japanese government said Wednesday.

The first shipment to the Chinese territory is expected around mid-May, the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry said.

Hong Kong is the third territory to resume Japanese beef imports following the United States and Canada.

Hong Kong imposed the import ban after Japan discovered its first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in September 2001. It agreed to lift the ban on condition that Japan limits its exports to meat from cattle aged up to 30 months and removes brain, spinal cords and other specific risk materials related to BSE.

Under these conditions, only two meat processors — both in Kagoshima Prefecture — are allowed to resume shipments to Hong Kong at the moment. But other facilities in Miyazaki and Gunma prefectures are also preparing to meet the conditions.

The agreement is a “significant step toward expanding exports of agricultural and stock farm products,” farm minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka said. It could also have a “great meaning for the vitalization of the agricultural industry,” he said.

Hong Kong was the biggest destination for Japanese beef exports in 2000, when the shipments came to 60 tons, compared with 40 tons to the United States in 2006.

With the Hong Kong agreement out of the way, Japan aims to speed up similar talks with Singapore and Taiwan, officials said.

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