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Japan intends to continue talks with the United States on the beef trade, even though restrictions on U.S. beef imports were likely to stay in place, farm minister Hirotaka Akamatsu said Friday.

The agriculture, forestry and fisheries minister made the remarks at a press conference ahead of U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s visit to Japan next week.

Akamatsu said it would be “hard” to abolish the import ban on U.S. beef from cattle older than 20 months, as demanded by Washington, but Tokyo is “willing to continue discussing the matter.”

Vilsack is due to arrive Monday for a five-day visit. Apart from his meeting with Akamatsu on Thursday, he will take part in a symposium in Tokyo.

This week, Vilsack acknowledged the difficulty in persuading Japan to lift its controls on U.S. beef imports, which were imposed out of fear of mad cow disease, but said he expects “forward progress” when he meets Akamatsu.

Japan and the United States are at odds over Washington’s insistence that Tokyo abolish its ban on imports of U.S. beef from cattle older than 20 months.

Tokyo suspended all beef imports from the United States after the first U.S. case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as mad cow disease, was found in 2003.

Japan, which had until then been the U.S. cattle industry’s biggest export market, later partially reopened the beef market with certain restrictions, including the age limit.

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