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Japan says no date set for beef talks with US

Written by: Staff
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TOKYO, Mar 23 (Reuters) Japan has yet to set a date for meeting US officials to discuss beef, a government official said today, a day after U.S. Department of Agriculture officials said they would meet their Japanese counterparts next Monday.

''We are still adjusting our schedule and (discussing) how to proceed in the talks,'' Vice Agriculture Minister Mamoru Ishihara said at a news conference on Thursday, adding that holding a meeting with USDA experts on beef trade on Monday might be difficult.

US Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said yesterday that a USDA technical team will meet with Japanese government officials on Monday to answer questions and press for the reopening of the Japanese market to US beef.

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 veal shipment from New York.

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

The contradictory remarks from the two governments signal a gap remains between them about the timing of a possible resumption of imports of US beef, a Japanese official said.

Johanns said on Wednesday that the United States is eager to provide any additional clarification Japan may request so that they can resume beef exports to Japan as quickly as possible.

But the Japanese government, under fire from opposition critics who say it lifted its initial ban too quickly under US pressure, is cautious about an early resumption of beef imports.

Japanese officials also believe the USDA has not yet fully answered Tokyo's questions about the ineligible veal shipment, and they are still unsure whether actions proposed by the USDA are effective to prevent a violation of beef trade rules, the official said.

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

The decision was made despite opposition from Japanese consumer groups and opposition lawmakers, who urged the government to keep the ban because US safeguards against mad cow disease are not as strict as in Japan.

Mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is believed to be caused by malformed proteins and spread through infected feed.

The human variant, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, is thought to be spread by eating contaminated meat. It has caused more than 160 deaths worldwide, including one in Japan.

The ineligible shipment of veal has deepened concerns among Japanese consumers that US beef might be tainted with materials that could cause a variant of the fatal brain-wasting disease in humans, Japanese officials said.

The USDA has said that the violation is a unique incident and does not indicate a weakness in the overall US beef processing, inspection or export systems.

REUTERS SK SSC1330

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