TOKYO (AP) -- Washington and Tokyo agreed Thursday to start talking again about American beef, a small but significant step toward relaxing import restrictions that have hindered access to the Japanese market.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack met with his Japanese counterpart, Hirotaka Akamatsu, as part of a four-day trip to promote ties between the two allies. Pushing for new beef rules topped the agenda.
In a statement after the meeting, Vilsack said the U.S. and Japan will hold a series of senior and working level meetings to establish a "mutually agreeable framework" for beef imports.
"This issue remains a high priority for the United States, and the U.S. objective remains a framework that is consistent with science and international standards," he said.
Japan banned U.S. beef imports in December 2003 after the first case of mad cow disease was found in the United States. Shipments resumed in January 2006, but under strict restrictions.
U.S. beef shipped to Japan must come from cattle age 20 months and younger, considered less at risk for the disease. U.S. exporters must also remove spinal columns, brain tissue and other materials from shipments bound for Japan.
Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is a degenerative nerve disease. In humans, eating meat products contaminated with the illness is linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare and fatal malady.
Washington has repeatedly declared American beef safe and criticized Japan's import restriction as scientifically unsound, but many Japanese consumers remain wary.
Japan has discovered some three dozen cases of mad cow and tests all cows headed for the slaughterhouse -- a measure Washington considers excessive. The U.S. Department of Agriculture tests about 1 percent of cows for the disease. Japanese inspectors have found banned cow parts in shipments, a violation of the trade accord that has added to Japan's worries.
Talks on the issue have been stalled for more than two years. Washington in the past had demanded Tokyo scrap all age restrictions. But it now appears willing to accept a more gradual easing in order to rekindle trade, the Japanese farm minister told reporters after the meeting.
Still, Akamatsu said the two countries are far from agreement.
"We agreed to talk, but our fundamental stance is that we will do so based on science and food safety," he said.
The renewed effort is part of President Barack Obama's National Export Initiative, which seeks to double U.S. exports in five years to help create 2 million jobs. Launched in February, the government-wide strategy calls for a more aggressive fight against trade barriers.
Japan was the largest consumer of U.S. beef until the late-2003 ban. It now ranks third behind Mexico and Canada, according to the National Cattleman's Beef Association. The U.S. shipped 81,345 metric tons of beef and beef products to Japan last year, about a quarter of 2003 levels. Revenue is down 65 percent.