The range of exportable beef from Canada to Japan could widen early next year as a panel of Japan's food safety commission is reportedly set to recommend easing such restrictions.
Tokyo's Kyodo news agency on Wednesday quoted Japanese government sources as saying an expert panel -- asked last December by Japan's health ministry to run an assessment of the safety of imported beef -- has reached an "in-principle" agreement to relax age limits on slaughter cattle from Canada and three other countries.
Japan shut its ports to Canadian beef in 2003 following the discovery that May of Canada's first domestic case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in an Alberta cow, and clamped down on U.S. beef later that year.
Canada has since been designated a "controlled risk" nation for BSE, which makes its exports of beef from cattle of all ages acceptable by the standards of the World Animal Health Organization (OIE).
Japan agreed in late 2005 to reopen to Canadian beef and beef products, but limited its imports to beef from cattle 20 months of age or younger.
According to Kyodo, Japan's 13-member expert panel is expected to cite data showing that BSE-causing prions have not been detected in beef from cattle under the age of 30 months, if specified risk materials (SRMs) such as brains and backbones, known to harbour prions, are removed.
The panel, led by veterinary professor Takeo Sakai of Nihon University, is expected to make a draft report available soon for public comment before submitting a final version to the health ministry, Kyodo said.
The report would cover the relaxation of the restrictions on beef imports from Canada, the U.S., France and the Netherlands, Kyodo said.
"Today's news is a sign of good progress for Montana beef -- but it's not the end of the fight," U.S. Senator Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat and chair of the U.S. Senate's finance committee, which oversees international trade, said in a release Wednesday.
"Japan's restrictions on American beef are just plain unfair, and I will continue to push Japan to open its markets so good ranching jobs at home in Montana aren't at risk."
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