Japan says U.S. beef talks not in final stage yet

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TOKYO, Mar 31 (Reuters) Tokyo has edged closer to a possible resumption of US beef imports after expert-level talks with the United States, but there is still some way to go, Japanese Agriculture Minister Shoichi Nakagawa said today.

The two governments held talks on beef safety issues in Tokyo on Tuesday and Wednesday at the request of the United States, which is pressing for the reopening of the Japanese market.

''We have moved one step forward,'' Nakagawa said at a news conference today.

Asked whether Japan and the United States would soon conclude discussions over beef issues, Nakagawa said, ''I don't think we have entered the final stage.'' Japan suspended US beef imports on January 20, just a month after it partially lifted a two-year-old ban on US beef imposed over mad cow disease fears, when Japanese inspectors discovered banned spinal material in a shipment of veal.

Nakagawa said that at the end of the meeting the two sides both understood the background behind the tainted shipment, which came from a packing house in New York state.

Nakagawa also denied media speculation that the Japanese government, under US pressure, would resume American beef imports before Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi meets US President George W Bush, possibly in June.

''We will clear hurdles step by step,'' he said, adding that they did not set a timetable for each of the tasks they must complete before lifting a ban on US beef.

US Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez urged Japan to reopen its beef market, saying he had discussed the matter with Japanese leaders during meetings yesterday ''We just want the opportunity to demonstrate that we can deliver the best beef in the world, at the right specifications, at the right standard, as Japan requires it,'' he told a news conference.

''Our beef is safe. I'd like to say that 10 times.'' The next step for Japan is to hold a public meeting to explain to Japanese consumers what was discussed at the expert meeting, and report to Japan's independent Food Safety Commission about the meeting, Nakagawa said.

Beef has become a thorny issue in relations between Japan and its closest ally. Before the initial ban, Japan was the top importer of U.S. beef, buying 240,000 tonnes valued at 1.4 billion dollars in 2003.

Last December, Japan lifted a ban on imports from the United States of beef and beef offal from cattle aged up to 20 months, on condition that specified risk materials that could spread mad cow disease, such as spinal cords, were removed before shipment.


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