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Japan To Ease Beef Ban

Japan agreed Monday to ease the country's ban on U.S. and Canadian beef imports, two years after the first case of mad cow disease was discovered in the U.S. herd.

The easing of the ban would allow meat from cows under 21 months old back into the Japanese market, which before the ban had been the most lucrative overseas market for American beef, buying $1.7 billion worth in 2003.

It was not immediately clear when U.S. meat would again appear in Japanese supermarkets and restaurants, but Kyodo News agency reported that approval could allow North American meat back in Japan by the end of the year.

The decision was formally adopted Monday by Japan's agriculture and health ministries, officials said. It follows a recommendation from the country's Food Safety Commission last week to resume limited imports.

Surveys show Japanese are as leery as ever of U.S. beef and unwilling to buy it, while American ranchers say a series of new safety requirements imposed by Tokyo could keep many producers from tapping the market anyway.

The new rules would allow only meat from cows younger than 21 months, because no cases of mad cow disease have been found in cows that age. Besides requiring U.S. producers to certify the cow's age, the new rules also demand that U.S. inspectors follow strict guidelines, such as removing dangerous cow material such as brains and spinal cords.