A government food safety panel charged with reviewing Japan's ban on U.S. beef released an uncompleted report recently saying the risk of bovine spongiform encephalopathy disease entering Japan in U.S. beef is extremely low if proper precautions are followed.
The talks come amid threats by some lawmakers in Washington to impose sanctions against Japan if Tokyo doesn't lift the ban imposed in 2003 after a U.S. cow tested positive for mad cow disease. The Japanese food safety panel is expected to finish its report and make a recommendation about the ban later this year.
Japan has found 20 cases of BSE, but Japanese authorities test all beef for the disease before it is processed for human consumption. Japan agreed to waive tests for cattle under 21 months because experts say that the risk of infection among cows that age is negligible.
As a direct result of the talks the USDA is gearing up for a new round of BSE testing, this time on cattle that appear completely healthy, according to government officials.
Until now, the Agriculture Department has concentrated its efforts on testing cattle it considers to be in a higher-risk category for the disease, such as "downer" animals that are too sick or injured to walk or animals that are dead on arrival at processing plants.
Since the Department began an enhanced surveillance program on June 1, 2004, 497,406 sick, injured or dead cattle have been tested, according to government data. The department will continue to test the higher-risk cattle but hopes to begin testing 20,000 cattle that look healthy as early as this week.
Many Agriculture Department officials believe testing healthy-looking animals is a waste of time and resources. In fact, the Department had made a decision to quietly drop the effort before reversing itself under pressure from Congress.