US welcomes Japan easing restrictions on US beef

The United States on Monday welcomed news that Japan has eased restrictions on beef imposed due to concerns over mad cow disease, easing a decade-long row between the allies.

US officials said that Japan -- formerly the largest buyer of US beef -- had agreed to allow the import of the meat from cattle slaughtered at up to 30 months old, higher than the earlier safety limit of 20 months.

The easing of restrictions will lead to "hundreds of millions of dollars" in expanded US beef exports to Japan in the coming years, US Trade Representative Ron Kirk's office said in a statement.

"This represents a significant and historic step in expanding US beef trade with Japan and growing American exports and jobs here at home. We welcome Japan's action," he said.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who unlike Kirk plans to stay in office for President Barack Obama's second term, called the deal "another successful effort by the Obama administration that boosts the bottom line" for farmers.

Norihisa Tamura, Japan's health, labor and welfare minister, announced last week that Tokyo planned to raise the age limit for beef subject to final approval from a council of the ministry.

Japan had been the largest buyer of US beef until 2003, when like several Asian nations it stopped all imports after mad cow disease was detected in an American herd.

The issue quickly became a top item on the agenda between the United States and Japan, with US lawmakers from US farm states demanding that the close ally open up its market.

The United States has pursued quieter diplomacy on the issue since 2006 when Japan, seeking to ease US concerns, agreed to allow beef from cattle under 20 months.

Australia has since replaced the United States as the largest source of beef in Japan, with some retailers highlighting to consumers that they do not buy from the United States.

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