TOKYO, May 17 (Reuters) The Japanese government will try to resolve the issue of resuming US beef imports, which have been suspended due to fears of mad cow disease, ahead of a trip to the United States by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi expected in late June, a local newspaper said today.
If a decision is deferred until after the summit, Japan may give the appearance of having bowed to US pressure, the Sankei daily said. Delaying a decision could also cause major friction with the United States, it said.
Japan suspended US beef imports on Jan. 20, just a month after it partially lifted a two-year-old ban imposed over mad cow disease fears, when Japanese inspectors discovered banned spinal material in a veal shipment from New York.
Beef has become 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 in 2003.
The newspaper report came ahead of two days of talks between Japanese and US officials starting Wednesday that could help move the two sides towards a resumption of beef trade.
Japanese officials are likely to discuss issues such as US re-inspections of processing facilities and conditions for resuming imports during the talks, it said.
Ahead of the talks, Farm Minister Shoichi Nakagawa said on Tuesday that the ministry was waiting for answers from the US Agriculture Department to questions about a department report on a re-audit of US packing plants eligible to export beef to Japan.
The USDA promised to re-audit the packing plants at a previous round of talks in Tokyo in March, after Japan said doubts over the US export system must be dispelled before imports could resume.
Nakagawa declined to say what kind of questions the ministry had raised with the USDA, but said that Japan wanted more details in the report.
''If we are satisfied with the results of our talks, we will certainly proceed into the next phase,'' Nakagawa said on Tuesday when asked whether this week's talks would mark a major step towards a resumption of beef trade.
REUTERS SK PM0722